As competition between colleges for new students gets tougher, the University of St. Thomas will buff itself up with a new $52 million athletic and recreation complex and a $66 million student center on the university's main campus in St. Paul.

The project, another significant expansion of the school's presence in St. Paul, is the largest in the university's history. Unlike previous construction efforts, it doesn't appear to be inciting acrimony with neighborhood residents.

"This is a way of simply making sure we have the type of facilities that will help attract students to the campus 10 and 15 years from now," said Mark Dienhart, the university's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

In recent years, the university devoted a lot of time and money to building a downtown Minneapolis campus and a law school, he said.

"While we were doing that, many of Minnesota's private colleges where we cross over with applicants were building these kind of facilities," Dienhart said. "Our primary athletic facility was built in 1939, and the student center was built for a population of 2,000."

St. Thomas' enrollment now totals nearly 11,000 with 7,460 students on the St. Paul campus.

"These type of facilities, which are very important to students, just didn't match up to the type of schools they were considering when they were looking at St. Thomas," Dienhart said. "So we lost some students. We're trying to ensure the viability of the institution."

The university's board of trustees approved plans for the athletic and recreation complex on Thursday, and construction will begin in late May. The 180,000-square-foot complex, to be located east of the university's football stadium, is scheduled to be opened in fall 2010.

The board discussed the athletic complex in October but held off on approval because of concerns about the weakened economy.

"Thanks to the support of generous contributors, we are able to move forward," said the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas.

Construction of the proposed 240,000-square-foot student center, if approved next year by the board of trustees, would begin in fall 2010 and be completed by February 2012.

The two projects and a 725-car parking ramp that opened earlier this week all will be named for Lee and Penny Anderson, who made a $60 million gift to St. Thomas in 2007. It is believed to be the largest single contribution by an individual or a couple to a college or university in Minnesota and is part of St. Thomas' $500 million fundraising drive, which has raised $365 million to date.

The projects will be a bit of a boost to the local economy at a time when a downturn in new construction has left many workers unemployed, Dienhart said.

The new facilities will significantly change the appearance of St. Thomas along both Summit and Cretin avenues. But unlike the last major construction project, they likely will rouse little if any neighborhood rancor.

A five-year feud over a campus expansion ended in 2004 after both sides drew up a 14-page agreement that included establishing campus boundaries and the 12-member West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee, a group of neighborhood and university representatives who collaborate on issues concerning the campus and neighborhood.

"Our goal is peaceful coexistence," said Scott Banas, the advisory group's neighborhood co-chair. "And we've been successful beyond my wildest dreams."

Before the parking ramp was built, the advisory group hashed out concerns, and the plans were redrawn until the design was agreeable to both sides, Banas said.

The advisory group has been tweaking plans for the athletic complex for more than a year, Banas said. "There's really been no major blow-up," he said. The "compromising and conciliation" process will continue with plans for the student center, with the group probably allaying neighborhood concerns about parking and pedestrian safety, he said.

The $15 million Anderson Parking Facility that opened earlier this month will allow the university to close its parking lot at Summit and Cretin avenues. This will free up space for the athletic complex, student center and a larger quadrangle. Some existing buildings also will be replaced.

The new athletic complex will feature:

•A 2,000-seat basketball and volleyball arena.

•An aquatic center containing an eight-lane, 25-meter swimming pool and diving area.

•A new field house with a 200-meter track.

•A west wing with a fitness center, weight room and aerobic rooms on the first floor and offices, classrooms and labs on the second and third floors.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788