May 22, 2018
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University of New England proposes state-of-the-art $14.5 million dental facility in Portland

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — University of New England officials are proposing a new $14.5 million Patient Care Center to be built at the school’s Portland campus, expected by some to be the most advanced dental facility in Maine when completed.

University leaders also are promoting a range of associated projects they hope will relieve a slowly worsening parking shortage in the surrounding streets, as the steady growth of the institution in recent years has brought more cars to limited spaces.

The city’s Planning Board is scheduled to consider the approximately 38,000-square-foot proposed patient center building at its Tuesday night meeting. The state-of-the-art facility has been designed by Port City Architecture and would be built by Allied Cook Construction.

“When this is done, it will be one of the most modern dental facilities in the state of Maine,” said Dr. James Koelbl, founding dean of UNE’s new College of Dental Medicine, scheduled to begin classes around the time of the new Patient Care Center’s fall 2013 opening.

The center would be equipped with a floor of training stations using dummies, as well as a floor of dental stations where third-year students can work on live patients under the tutelage of dentist faculty members.

The facility will be manned by 40 combined UNE faculty and staff, and Koelbl said once the practice becomes fully operational — as students work their way through the program in perhaps year four or five of the new dental school — between 12,000 and 15,000 patient visits are expected annually.

But those expectations came with concerns for neighbors of the Stevens Avenue campus, said UNE Assistant Vice President for Planning Alan Thibeault. He said during a slate of neighborhood meetings and city workshops on the project, area residents expressed concerns about the ever more crowded on-street parking.

The new Patient Care Center would displace three old white homes along Stevens Avenue already owned by UNE, as well as the 23 parking spaces associated with them.

“We have parking lots in the back of the campus, but when faculty and students come down Stevens and see a spot open on the side of the road, closer to the buildings they’re heading into, they pull in and take it,” Thibeault said. “Over the last five years, our population has grown, and those drivers have begun parking farther and farther down side streets in the area as well.”

In addition to a 38-space patients-only parking lot to be built alongside the new Patient Care Center to replace the 23 being lost, Thibeault said the school acquired a 19-acre former Pike Industries asphalt plant property on nearby Bishop Street. There, he said, is 12 acres of paved ground with stormwater permits already granted by the city.

Thibeault said school officials plan to build a heated, sheltered area alongside the more than 300 new parking spaces for those waiting for a shuttle van, in order to help move UNE-related cars back onto UNE property. The Bishop Street property is connected to the university campus by an approximately half-mile internal service road, on which the school will place regular shuttle vans for students, staff and faculty using the satellite lot.

“There are days when you’re a half-mile down Stevens Avenue before you find a [streetside] place to park, and then you’ve got to walk to campus from there,” Thibeault said. “This way, there will be a shuttle that will get you here in three or four minutes.”

The university already leases or rents spaces at the nearby Stevens Avenue Armory and Stevens Avenue Congregational Church, and distributes Metro passes to students, staff and faculty who want them. Other smaller-scale efforts under way include education and incentive programs geared to convince UNE drivers to take advantage of available on-campus lots instead of parking on the streets. Thibeault said the school entered everyone who parked on-campus every day during one particular week into a drawing for an L.L. Bean bicycle, for instance.

He added that the city of Portland is looking into a residential parking permit program for the nearby streets, in which on-street public parking would be limited to shorter time periods — one or two hours, perhaps — while residents of those streets would get passes to allow unlimited on-street parking. The residential parking permit program has been used elsewhere in the city as well to combat similar parking crunches.

“I think we’ve progressed a lot in the last few months,” said Thibeault about the school’s efforts to alleviate the parking bind in the area.

Koelbl said the new Patient Care Center, construction of which would begin in July with the Planning Board’s blessing, also would have a positive effect in the community, providing affordable dental care in a city facing high numbers of homeless people and where residents are still climbing out of the recession.

“Usually when dental schools are established in communities, they become safety nets of sorts for people who can’t afford dental care elsewhere,” he said. “Over time, we expect to see more and more working people who realize it’s quality work [being done by the students] — that it has to be checked and double-checked before they’re let through the door.”

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