The first phase of construction on two new residence halls and a dining center is under way on the north side of Southern Oregon University's campus.

The first phase of construction on two new residence halls and a dining center is under way on the north side of Southern Oregon University's campus.

Adroit Construction fenced off the area and set up camp a week ago to begin "clearing and grubbing the site," said Tom Walker, a project manager for the Ashland-based outfit.

Crews are working to tear down fencing, signs and trees, and are demolishing the tennis courts and asphalt, while simultaneously rerouting sewer and sanitation lines in the area, preparing to scrape out an area for the three buildings' foundations, said Walker.

Along with Walker, Ashland Mayor John Stromberg, SOU President Mary Cullinan and representatives from the project's designer, SERA Architect, and developer, American Campus Communities, spoke Friday morning at a ground-breaking ceremony in the lobby of the Greensprings Residence Hall, adjacent to the construction area.

The project is expected to employ about 200 workers when it enters its more impressive phases of construction, said Walker.

Crews are expected to begin working on the foundations next week, he said, and begin framing the structures by the end of June, or early July.

A 89,433-square-foot north residence hall will be the first built, he said. It will consist of 273 beds and 78 suite-style apartments.

About three weeks behind it, a 105,039-square-foot residence hall facing Ashland Street will begin rising from its foundation, Walker said. It will have about 430 beds and 135 semi-suite, apartment-style rooms.

Construction of a 27,800-square-foot, one-story dining and community hall will start about three weeks after the south hall, Walker said.

"There is going to be a lot of activity over the summer months to get these buildings in before winter," he said.

The university is on course to open the buildings in time for the fall term of 2013, said Jonathan Eldridge, vice president for student affairs at SOU. Construction is estimated to cost $40 million.

He said freshmen and sophomores likely will occupy the semi-suite hall, while juniors and seniors will take the suite hall. He said the suite-style rooms will be larger, include a kitchenette and will be outfitted with additional amenities.

Students living in SOU's residence halls next year will have first crack at the new rooms, he said, an opportunity that has already generated interest from the student body.

"During our preview weekends, one of the most popular tables at our academic and information fair is the housing table," he said. "I'm confident that these buildings will be a centerpiece of the campus community."

The school will pay for the project over an extended period by entering into a 40-year, ground-lease arrangement with Collegiate Housing Foundation, a nonprofit organization, and American Campus Communities, the developer selected for the project.

Collegiate Housing Foundation obtained about $56.6 million in tax-exempt housing revenue bonds from the Oregon Facilities Authority to fund the project, a report to the Oregon University System's Finance and Administration Committee states.

That amount, plus interest, is expected to be paid back to CHF by the university by the time the lease expires, the report said.

Eldridge said SOU is partially financing the dining and commons area through the OUS.

The new facilities will be a good switch from the roughly 600-room "archaic" Cascade Complex, said Tim Robitz, director of housing for SOU. The building currently uses about 60 percent of the campus steam-heating energy, he said.

According to the SOU master plan, the Cascade Complex will eventually be replaced with academic buildings, but that may not happen immediately after the new residence halls open, said Eldridge. He said the university will need to assess its housing demands in 2013 and look at other options for the building before closing its doors permanently.

"There is a different level of excitement when a project of this magnitude goes from being theoretical to where dirt is being moved around," he said. "Finally, we will have the kind of housing and amenities that our students want and deserve."

The new development totals more than 220,000 square feet between the three structures, and is one of the largest construction projects in Ashland's history.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or swheeler@dailytidings.com.