By From the Lowell Sun
By Jennifer Myers
LOWELL -- A vibrant downtown filled with students and professors, bustling restaurants and shops, connecting UMass Lowell's existing North and South campuses to the rest of the city.
Such is the vision shared by UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan and City Manager Bernie Lynch.
"We are on the same page, looking to benefit the city and university and strengthen the downtown," Lynch said. "A strong university makes a strong city and vice versa."
Meehan said that the economic renaissance of the city's downtown that has seen people paying $300,000 to $500,000 to purchase a condominium and the opening of several new restaurants is very attractive to the university.
He has been in talks with the owners of several apartment buildings in the area, looking for a building the school could purchase to house faculty as well as international, graduate or honors students.
"We have dorms that house students in our honors program, our best and brightest, along with faculty, and to find housing closer to the downtown, to the (Tsongas) Arena and the ballpark would bring a vibrant life to the area and encourage us to use them more," Meehan said.
Enrollment at the university is up 20 percent this fall over last fall, with 2,352 new undergraduates descending upon Lowell.
Of the 13,479 total students enrolled at the university, 2,600 live on campus, an increase of 400 students from the previous year, according to Dean of Students Larry Siegel.
Meehan says he hopes to lure a higher percentage of students to live on campus in the coming years, changing the current 75/25 commuter-to-resident split to 50/50, but that would require more than 2,100 additional beds.
This semester, 240 UMass Lowell students are living at the Radisson hotel over the border in Nashua.
"I generally do not think it is good for a Massachusetts school to have students living in New Hampshire," said Meehan. "We negotiated with the DoubleTree (in Lowell) and several other hotels, but it did not work out."
Plans to build a 400-bed dorm on Marginal Street, already under construction, were thwarted this summer when Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that the project violated public bidding laws.
The ruling, which the university's lawyers strongly disagreed with, pushed them to sever the lease signed with Brasi Development because the dorm rooms would not be affordable enough for student living.
In addition to housing, the university is also looking into incorporating downtown businesses into the school's student meal plan, a partnership that would allow students to use their meal cards at participating restaurants, while boosting the downtown economy.
"The university does potentially lose revenue if the students leave the campus to eat, but it is a model we would look at particularly if we were to make an investment in a building downtown, because we would then have a vested interest in the downtown," Meehan said.
The Lowell Plan is currently preparing a request for proposals to conduct an independent economic impact analysis of bringing university life into the downtown.
"The combination of faculty, staff and students has real spending power," said Lowell Plan President Jim Cook. "The timing is perfect to look at this with the other development such as the Hamilton Canal revitalization beginning to take shape. We think it makes perfect sense."
Kathleen Marcin, president of the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association, agrees, as long as it is done correctly.
"More students living here will certainly draw more students to the downtown, which will beef up the economy, but they have to feel connected to the university at the same time," she said.
Marcin said that if the trolley lines are expanded to run from the downtown to LeLacheur Park, as proposed in the $800 million Hamilton Canal project, that would be a great catalyst to having students downtown.
"Easy public transportation really is key," she said.
Lynch said the Lowell of today reminds him of the Lowell of the 1970s, when he was a young idealistic student at the university.
"It was a very exciting time with the city staring its renaissance with the national park and reuse of mill buildings, but here was a disconnect between the university and the city," he said. "It has been 30 years, but I see the same things happening and, as we grow as a city, we need to partner with the university to bring both to the next level."