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August 16, 2023

Not your parents' dorm: USM unveils Portland Commons Residence Hall

Portland Commons Courtesy / The University of Southern Maine The University of Southern Maine's Portland Commons Residence Hall has 580 beds and cost $74 million.

The University of Southern Maine took a major step forward this week with the opening of its first on-campus dormitory for students.

Officials from USM, the University of Maine System, contractors and students were part of a ribbon-cutting Tuesday for the $74 million, 580-bed Portland Commons Residence Hall.

“This is a transformative milestone for our institution in providing access to housing and supporting students' academic success,” said Christina Lowery, director of housing and residential life.

Speakers at the event included UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy, UMaine System Board of Trustees Chair Trish Riley, USM President Jacqueline Edmondson and USM Director of Sustainability Aaron Witham. Also in attendance was former USM President Glenn Cummings, a key driver in getting the project rolling.

(The courtyard in the center of the commons is named for Cummings, and students have already taken to calling the green space "the Glenn.")

“This 580-bed residential hall will transform the campus, creating a hub for students from USM, Maine Law, and SMCC, solidifying Portland's reputation as a college town and USM as the hub,” said USM President Jacqueline Edmondson.

The complex also includes a garage with 500 parking spaces, 58 Level-Two electric vehicle charging spots, and long-term secure storage for more than 250 bicycles — which USM says is the largest concentration of Level-Two EV charging stations and the largest indoor bicycle storage area in Maine. 

The complex is adjacent to the McGoldrick Center, a student activity hub that houses the campus bookstore, a tavern and lounge areas. The center will be officially unveiled in a ceremony on Sept. 27.

Housing will be reserved for older undergrads, grad students and Maine Law students; first-year students will continue to be housed at USM's Gorham campus. 

USM has an enrollment of 8,000 students.

Peter Van Allen
USM's McGoldrick Center with Portland Commons at right.

A regional university

The board chair, Trish Riley, said in her comments that project was not without its critics. 

"It's not easy to spend money when you don't have much," she said. 

But the need for housing on the campus was crucial to creating a viable "comprehensive regional university," one that could compete for students and offer a 24/7 campus environment. She also said the board envisioned summer uses that could generate additional revenue. 

Riley shared that when she first became involved in USM in the 1980s the campus "was a couple of buildings [surrounded by] a bunch of warehouses. It is now a campus."

The details

The four wings of the hall — two reaching five stories and two reaching eight stories — form a parallelogram that encloses a half-acre, semi-private residential courtyard.  

Portland Commons is on track to receive Passive House certification.

"By building our res hall to earn Passive House certification, and by making alternative transportation front and center in our new garage, we've decided we aren't taking baby steps anymore. We are now taking big strides toward our commitment to be a carbon-neutral university by 2040," said Witham, USM's director of sustainability.  

Portland Commons was developed, designed, and constructed in partnership with Capstone Development Partners of Birmingham, Ala.; Elkus Manfredi Architects of Boston; PC Construction of Portland and South Burlington, Vt.; and SMRT Architects and Engineers of Portland. Steven Winter Associates served as the Passive House consultant. The parking garage was managed by PC Construction and Desman, a firm that specializes in parking garage design and planning and has a Boston office. 

Peter Van Allen
UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy and UMaine System Board of Trustees Chair Trish Riley in one of the shared spaces at Portland Commons.

The tour

An informal tour of Portland Commons, led by architects Brad Baker and Philip Chaney of SMRT, showed just far student housing has come from the days alumni might remember.

I happened to be on the tour with the board chair, Riley, and the UMaine System chancellor, Malloy, among others, and we all marveled at the contrast to our own college days. The common theme revolved around either 1950s-style cinder block dorms or 1920s-era "historic" dorms that had no air conditioning — but even in wintertime could also be overheated by one central boiler. There might have been one pay phone per floor. Laundry facilities, often in a dank basement, were overloaded and smelled of old socks. 

Peter Van Allen
UMaine Chancellor Dannel Malloy inspects a stove in Portland Commons.

By contrast, USM's 210,000-square-foot residence hall has 385 units, including studio apartments, single-occupancy rooms and apartments for up to four people. Views are of the Portland skyline and Back Cove. Amenities include kitchens, bathroom (and in the case of the larger apartments, two bathrooms) and washer-dryer setups. The building has a sophisticated HVAC system that can recirculate and purify the air, while students also have the option of opening a window for fresh air.

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