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Northeastern expansion plans trigger widespread concerns

Martin Desmarais
Northeastern expansion plans trigger widespread concerns
Northeastern University’s new master plan proposes $2 billion in construction over the next 10 years. Neighbors of the university are concerned about the impact of expansion and an increase in students living off campus. Above: The campus of Northeastern sits next to the Whittier Street Public Housing Development in Roxbury.

This week Northeastern University goes in front of the Boston Redevelopment Authority with its new 10-year master plan for expansion and development, along with a request for a permit to start work on a new science center. Community concern has risen quickly about the amount of student housing that will be part of this plan, the lack of communication with adjacent neighbors and response to worries voiced by those neighbors.

Northeastern’s appearance before the BRA is scheduled for after the Banner goes to press on Tuesday evening. Northeastern did not return calls for comment on the proposed plan and many parties involved are holding comments until after the BRA’s response.

All told Northeastern is proposing about $2 billion in construction on approximately 3 million square feet of university land, with a substantial portion of this construction in Roxbury.

If Northeastern’s plan goes forward as proposed the first new construction Roxbury residents would see is the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building on Columbus Ave.

The proposed building would contain 220,000-square feet of floor space and be six stories high. This development is touted by the school as being part of a series of new campus spaces that would connect its Roxbury property through its land into the Fenway.

It is not the amount of development in Northeastern’s proposed plan that concerns most; it is what the plan lacks that has local residents and officials worried — namely more student housing.

As Northeastern continues to pursue its stated goal of transforming from a mostly commuter school into a research institution with more students living on or around campus the clash over housing between the university and surrounding communities has intensified. In the late 1980s, the university had some 40,000 students, but many were part-time and most were commuters. In the 1990s, the school started to accommodate more students on campus, but also drastically reduced its number of students by almost half to accommodate them. Undergraduate students dropped to fewer than 12,000 during this time. Today, Northeastern has just over 20,000 students, with about 13,000 undergraduates.

From the 1990s until now, the university has gone from about 3,000 dorm beds on campus to more than 7,000, with over 700 more to come in dorm construction already underway. That leaves more than 12,000 students living in Boston-area neighborhoods. And this is something that community officials and residents want changed.

Roxbury, in particular, has a history of troubles over the presence of Northeastern students and the university’s response to concerns. A previous Northeastern University master plan attempted to ease these worries by planning more dorm rooms and stating a goal of housing 75 percent of undergraduates on campus.

However, the new master plan reduces the number of dorm rooms proposed to accommodate only 60 percent of students. School officials still say Northeastern still has a goal of housing 75 percent of its undergraduate students — but not until 2023.

The issue of housing has led to public criticism from City Councilor Tito Jackson. Jackson has called for Northeastern to honor its previously set goals to house more students on campus. He also is not satisfied with Northeastern’s goal of housing 75 percent of its undergraduate students by the end of the 10-year master plan — he calls for this to happen in the first five years of the plan.

City Councilor Michael Ross earlier this year sent Northeastern a public letter asking the university to place more emphasis on housing for students in its future development plans.

To examine its new master plan, Northeastern has established a task force that has widespread representation from community groups, including the Mission Hill Senior Legacy Project, the Mission Hill Housing Services, The Roxbury Trust Fund, Sociedad Latina, the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, Whittier Street Tenant Association, Discover Roxbury, the United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury, the Fenway Community Development Corp., Symphony United Neighbors and the Fenway Civic Association.

Despite her organization’s presence on the task force, the Fenway Community Development Corp. Executive Director Dharmena Downey sent a detailed letter to Northeastern voicing objections to new master plan.

FCDC’s concerns included substantial detail about housing issues.

The FCDC is calling for the completion of 1,000 student beds within the first five years of the master plan, specifically criticizing Northeastern for failing to fulfill housing commitments made in the school’s previous master plan.

The organization also demanded that Northeastern show its ability to finance the proposed dorm projects to ensure their completion before the development plans are approved by the BRA.

The letter also suggested that Northeastern needs to make a better effort to make on-campus housing more affordable to students, as the FCDC believes that many of the students that move off campus into surrounding neighborhoods do so because it is a better financial option. “Northeastern needs strategies to reduce the cost of dorms and lay out clear mechanisms for doing so in the [master plan],” the letter stated.

This last point connected to another housing issue the FCDC highlights, namely that affordable housing has become a “serious concern” for both Fenway and Mission Hill because the rents have increased over time due in part to a flood of students from Northeastern that inflate the market rents and push lower-income residents out of the neighborhoods.

While Northeastern has studied this issue and concluded that its students do not impact the rental market in surrounding neighborhoods, the FCDC is not sold on that conclusion, calling for a more careful study that works with Fenway and Mission Hill organizations and includes input from landlords and real estate agents who work in both markets.

“The university should make a clear commitment to affordable housing in the [master plan] to help mitigate escalating rents in the neighborhood,” the FCDC letter stated.

The FCDC also called for more transparency from Northeastern in the process of submitting its master plan for approval. The organization believes that because of the concerns surrounding further Northeastern development the university should go beyond what is simply required and make a better effort to answer the questions from the community.

“Months of meetings now appear to have constituted a meaningless bureaucratic requirement with no serious regard for community input,” the letter stated. “Community concerns should be acknowledged and responded to.”