Calling Merrimack College "a hot school" as 5,000 applications were received for 700 freshman slots this year, college officials said the school must grow to remain competitive.
The college's first phase of plans is being presented two town boards and college neighbors this week. The proposal is a six-building residential project with 428 beds. The buildings will be built in the middle of campus, now an open green space of paths connecting dorms to various buildings.
The college is located in both Andover and North Andover with the new buildings located entirely in Andover. Current tuition is $45,610.
Town planner Jacki Byerley said the college has seven acres in Andover. If plans are approved, construction would start this September and end in August 2013.
"We need more students," Merrimack's Chief of Staff Jeff Doggett told college neighbors - mostly from Andover - at a meeting Monday night, July 9. "You'll see this college close if we don't have a master plan."
After the meeting, he said 40 to 50 upperclass students will be living at the Marriott's Residence Inn in west Andover this fall as dorms are already squeezed for space. These students will be shuttled to the main campus for classes.
The college also looked at leasing the Franciscan Center on River Road for student housing. But Doggett said the Residence Inn works better for the college's needs. Residence Inn rooms have kitchens.
"Residence Inn does this for colleges across the country," said Doggett, who previously worked for Northeastern University in Boston and handled neighborhood issues.
At the neighborhood meeting, Doggett said colleges need a master plan to survive and attract students these days as college enrollments are expected to drop in the coming years.
"Remember Bradford College?" he asked the crowd of about 20 neighbors. The Haverhill college suffered the consequences of having no master plan and it closed, he said. Its site is now home to Zion Bible College.
But Merrimack College neighbors were most concerned about parking, water drainage and signage issues as a result of the new buildings. Doggett emphasized that the meeting's goal was to simply inform neighbors of the proposal. He had no concrete answers to parking, water and signage issues.
That didn't seem to bother most neighbors as Doggett promised to hold another meeting after presenting the plans to Andover's Planning Board on Tuesday, July 10 and to the Conservation Commission tonight, Thursday, July 12, after Townsman deadline.
"I just think it's good that the college is meeting with us and keeping us informed about what's going on," said Helen Waller of Brookfield Road.
Paulette Grundeen's house on Fox Hill Road abuts the college's health center and she asked about improving the buffer between her backyard and the college.
Drainage issues were clearly on the minds of other neighbors. Doggett said he believes a drainage basin system installed a few years ago that crosses Elm Street and drains on college property near the YMCA, is helping.
Neighbors also said that a lack of signs, especially for the Volpe Center's hockey rink, deserves attention because drivers get lost on neighborhood streets.
"We want to get ideas and suggestions from you and take responsibility...That's why we're here tonight," Doggett said.