LOWELL - With the new school year comes two new dormitories at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the school's fifth and sixth new buildings in the past year.
On Friday, the first wave of 1,000 students who will live in the new dorms started moving in to University Suites on East Campus and Riverview Suites, connected to South Campus by a 103 1/2-foot pedestrian walkway spanning railroad tracks.
"This growth is an example of how UMass Lowell's reputation for excellence and value is spreading," said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan.
The school has seen a 40 percent enrollment boost over the last six years, with more students seeking on-campus housing, Meehan said. Approximately 4,000 students, nearly half the undergraduate population, live in UMass Lowell dorms.
The 148,000-square-foot University Suites includes study areas, an outdoor courtyard, cafe open to the public and 88 suites, each housing four or six students.
At 172,200 square feet, Riverview Suites features a fitness center, five classrooms, study and meeting space in addition to 110 apartment-style suites.
"When I first came in, it was like, this is unreal," said UMass Lowell senior Jimmy Ortiz, a resident adviser for one of the two living-learning communities within Riverview Suites. "I can't believe we're here."
Friday's opening of Riverview Suites was celebrated by university officials and the building's developer as well, as students trickled in to a dorm that, at one point, looked like it wouldn't be built.
In a public-private partnership, the university had originally entered into an agreement with Soho Development to build the dorm and ultimately lease it to the school in 2008.
After a losing bidder objected to the process, Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled the deal violated public-bidding laws, a decision the state Supreme Judicial Court later upheld.
The project was revived in 2011, when Lowell's Beacon Hill delegation inserted a line item into a midyear budget bill allowing Meehan to enter into a lease agreement.
"It was very rocky in the beginning," said developer Jim McClutchy. "Very, very rocky. But once it was moving along, it went perfectly."
Riverview Suites is the first privately built residence hall at a Massachusetts public university, a partnership of which Meehan said the school is proud.
"Taking this approach allowed for the simultaneous construction of Riverview Suites and University Suites to quickly meet the growing demand from students for university housing," he said.
McClutchy praised the university staff as dedicated and hardworking and East Boston Savings Bank for taking "a leap of faith" in financing the project.
In the end, McClutchy said, the project worked out for everyone. "I think it's good for the university, it's good for us and it's good for the city," he said. "They get the tax dollars, and the university gets beds that they needed."
A total of 510 students will call Riverview Suites home this year, some of whom will be part of two living-learning communities, blocks of rooms made available for clusters of students with similar interests.
Ortiz's community is for diversity peer educators, students who volunteer to participate in and direct awarenessraising programs on social issues.
"It's spreading information on things you don't really learn in class," said Ortiz, of Lawrence.
First-year grad student Courtney Dias, a Milford native, is the resident adviser for a Greek life community, that will allow fraternity and sorority members to live together, display their organization's letters and make use of the meeting space.
"This is a big opportunity for Greek life to be recognized on campus and feel like part of the school," Dias said.
As they took a break for iced coffee while moving in Friday morning, sorority sisters and suitemates Shannon Casey of Boston and Casey Harrison of Chelmsford, both juniors, said they appreciated the ability to live in the same hallway with their friends.
Their six-person suite, like others in the building, features a living room with a sectional sofa and coffee table and a complete kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen includes a dining table, stove, microwave and full-size refrigerator.
The kitchens and shared living room space give the dorms a more homey feel, Dias said.
Bedrooms are doubles, with two beds, dressers and desks. The desk chairs were selected based on student feedback and can break down into a stool and rocking chair, offering more seating when residents have friends over.
The university's full move-in is this weekend, but McClutchy said he's enjoyed seeing some students arrive early.
"It's a pleasure, talking to the kids over there," he said. "They're ecstatic about the accommodations."