By Rick Sobey
LOWELL -- Before UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan came to lead the university in 2007, new academic buildings and residence halls were unheard of.
Well, look at the campus today.
UMass Lowell held yet another grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday as the university unveiled the $54 million University Suites, the sixth building UMass Lowell has opened in the last year and the second dorm that opened this semester.
The university is expanding and expanding, and there's no end in sight.
"This is where our students want to live, and we now have a first-rate facility for our students to be here," said Meehan during the celebration in front of the new residence hall at 327 Aiken St. on East Campus.
"This is the most expensive place to stay on campus, and you know what? It filled up first.
"We're extremely excited today, but let's face it -- it's an exciting time at this university," he added.
Meehan emphasized how the dorm is in the middle of all kinds of activity; University Suites is close to the Campus Recreation Center, LeLacheur Park and Tsongas Center. He also said it blends seamlessly into the historic neighborhood.
"Statistically, students who live on campus do better academically," Meehan said. "We want more of our students to live on campus, to be engaged with us in university life because we know academically they're going to perform at a higher level."
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 is home to 472 students and includes 88 four- and six-bed suites, featuring living rooms and kitchenettes. It costs $4,650 per semester to live there.
If it wasn't for lectures and exams, students could stay for weeks at a time inside University Suites. There are eight common lounge areas with full kitchens and flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and other technology throughout the building, a glass-fronted living room with a fireplace, quiet conference rooms and study areas, and the Hawk's Nest Café, which is open to the public for grab-and-go meals during the day and Asian-fusion cuisine in the evening. There's also Red Mango frozen yogurt and Starbucks coffee.
"This is an incredible environment," said sophomore Tyler Valila, of Gardner. "The Hawk's Nest is going to be a huge convenience. Instead of running outside to get food in the rain, we have it all right here.
"We're breaking in the building," he added. "We're part of UMass Lowell's transformation, and it's pretty cool."
There's also a multipurpose room for up to 126 people, an outdoor courtyard, and every shower has a binary code that has sayings, such as, "Hawk pride lives here." Some rooms also have a great view of LeLacheur Park's baseball field.
"This place has it all," said sophomore Ryan Mansfield, of Danvers. "We can all get together in the common room and do our homework out there as a group. I love it. It's a great spot to study and a great place to have fun."
Riverview Suites on South Campus also opened up this semester. The 172,200-square-foot dorm features a fitness center, five classrooms, study and meeting space in addition to 110 apartment-style suites.
Along with University and Riverview Suites, UMass Lowell opened the following buildings in the past year: the $80 million Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, the $40 million Health and Social Sciences Building, and new parking garages.
On deck for a ribbon cutting is the $95 million student-engagement center, which will complete University Crossing on Pawtucket Street. Slated to open next year, the 230,000-square-foot complex will be a hub of student activity and should connect the university's three campuses with the downtown business and cultural district.
The four-story glass structure will have the admissions and financial-aid offices, restaurants, space for clubs and organizations, a bookstore and much more.
UMass Lowell also has plans to construct the Pulichino Tong Business Building on North Campus.
Thursday's grand opening and ribbon cutting was also attended by City Manager Bernie Lynch; state Reps. Thomas Golden and David Nangle; Richard Freeland, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education; Mayor Patrick Murphy; UMass Building Authority Chairman Philip Johnston; UMass Lowell Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney; Laurence Siegel, UMass Lowell associate vice chancellor of student affairs and events; Patricia McCafferty, UMass Lowell vice chancellor of university relations; Joanne Yestremski, UMass Lowell vice chancellor for finance and operations; and other university, city and state officials.