Donation jumpstarts Bowdoin College plan for track, turf field in Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — A last-minute, multi-million dollar gift from an undisclosed donor has Bowdoin College fast-tracking plans for a new turf field and track at its football field.

Residents of Bowker Street, which runs along the southeastern edge of Whittier Field, had mixed reactions to the project and it’s announcement at a Town Council meeting Monday, after college representatives pitched plans at a neighborhood meeting March 17.

“The project has the potential to completely change the character of the quiet, stable residential neighborhood,” Bowker Street resident Mark Battle said during public comment, reading from a statement on behalf of his neighbors.

Battle, a Bowdoin professor who did not attend the March 17 meeting, had concerns over a potential increase in the number of games, practices and activity at the field.

He also said the project’s accelerated schedule might impede careful consideration, since the donor’s gift is contingent on the field being ready for the start of the fall football season, according to what Bowdoin officials said March 17.

Whittier Field has an entrance off Sills Drive, and is between Bowker and Pine streets. The portion of Pine Street adjacent to the field has a row of apartment-style college housing.

Project plans call for replacing and widening the track, installing a turf field and new lighting, demolishing bleacher seating, and expanding seating and adding a press box on the north side of the field, according to college representative Catherine Ferdinand.

Ferdinand confirmed Tuesday that the college is trying to expedite the permitting process with the Department of Environmental Protection.

But Town Manager John Eldridge said the DEP process would not affect the town’s review of the project.

“There’s not a shortcut process for that review, and I think (town staff) fully expects that neighbors will be involved at those meetings and their input would be considered,” he said by phone Wednesday.

The project is expected to go to the Planning Board soon. A public meeting required by the DEP will be held on the proposal March 29 at 4 p.m. at Bowdoin’s Peter Buck Fitness Center.

Neighbors reportedly asked college officials on March 17 if the field construction is the first step toward rerouting Pine Street, according to Battle and Ferdinand.

The college has considered rerouting Pine Street to pass through forested property it owns along Bath Road. Ferdinand said that would require collaboration with town staff and Town Council approval.

The rerouted road would create a safer, new intersection between Pine Street and Bath Road. But Battle said he is worried the change would turn Bowker Street into a busy alternative for drivers hoping to avoid the intersection between Bath Road, Sills Drive and Federal Street.

According to both Ferdinand and Eldridge, Bowdoin’s plans for Whittier Field do not involve any changes to Pine Street.

While the idea has come up in conversations between the town and the college over the last year, Ferdinand said, “those conversations haven’t risen to a level of priority” for the college.

If it did, she added, “multiple parties would have to come together and say this is a good thing,” including the neighbors.

Councilor Kathy Wilson, who attended the Friday meeting, said college officials went out of their way to be accommodating to the nine neighbors in attendance.

“I did go to the meeting, and some of the issues you brought up were talked about, and I don’t think it was a totally unfavorable neighborhood sitting there,” Wilson  said.

However, some of the neighbors were irked when they only received a single day’s notice of the meeting, according to Battle.

But Wilson said gestures of accommodation – like when Director of Athletics Tim Ryan gave his cell phone number to residents – seemed to ease some concerns.

“I don’t have a feeling of impending doom,” Bowker Street resident Ben Walsh said during Monday’s public comment.

Walsh said he hopes the college will comply with the town’s existing noise and lighting ordinance, and Ferdinand said it would.

Ferdinand elaborated Tuesday that improvements to Whittier Field have been on the college’s wish list for some time, although in the absence of a donor, they had never materialized.

The identity of the donor, as well as the size of the gift, remain confidential for now, although Ferdinand said the donation is “in the millions” of dollars.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Edited March 24, 2017, to clarify the nature of the public meeting to be held March 29 and to remove a suggestion the college intends to demolish housing on Pine Street. 

Bowker Street in Brunswick runs along the southern edge of Bowdoin College’s Whittier Field, right, where the college plans to build a new track and turf field.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.