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Northeastern plans towering new dorms

Burke Street site, size, process contested

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Northeastern plans towering new dorms
Rendering of the new residence hall that Northeastern is planning for the Burke Street site (Photo: Rendering developed by Cube 3 Architects and Elkus Manfredi Architects)

While many of Northeastern University’s Roxbury neighbors agree the school should house more of its student body in university dorms, some argue that the specter of a 20-story apartment complex towering over the neat, four-story apartment buildings on Burke Street is the wrong way to do it.

The university proposes to create on-campus housing that could pull 800 students out of the city’s housing market — where they traditionally hasten the sharp rise in rents. But residents raised concerns over the size and location of the project as well as a perceived lack of community say and benefits.

Northeastern’s plans, announced in December, call for a 20-story high residence hall that will provide 800 student beds in 207 units. Known as the “Columbus Avenue Student Housing Project,” it will be located at 10 Burke Street in Roxbury, with Burke Street to its east, Columbus to the north, and Coventry to the west. The construction advances toward Northeastern’s goal — set in its 2013 Institutional Master Plan — of creating 1,000 new student beds by 2018.

The project’s task force presented plans to the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the morning of Feb. 8, but the public meeting to solicit feedback that was scheduled that evening was canceled due to snow.

The planned apartments will include two-bedroom units with shared and private accommodations as well as four-bedroom units with private accommodations, according to plans filed with the BRA in late January. Construction is expected to begin in the last quarter of 2016 and be completed in 2018.

The site currently is a 58-space parking lot held by the university. Northeastern will ground lease the site to American Campus Communities Inc. — a Texas-based developer specializing in student-housing. Such leases give the property owner — in this case Northeastern — ownership of the land and improvements made on it, after allowing the tenant — ACC — an extended period of time in which to derive benefits from the development it makes on the site. Under a dormitory license from the city, ACC will develop, own and operate the residence. The ground lease stipulates that the site be used for student housing apartments and that Northeastern students in their third through fifth years be given first right to lease the apartments, according to plans filed with the BRA.

Local housing pressures

Kyle Robidoux, a board member for United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury and a former Northeastern University Community Task Force member, has lived in the neighborhood for ten years, during which he says he has seen a dramatic increase in students living in the area, accompanied by a dramatic increase in rent and homeownership prices. The more NU can take students out of the local housing market, the better, he said.

“If there’s an opportunity to provide more on-campus housing for students and more housing in our neighborhood for families, that’s a win-win for me,” he said.

But the full extent of the effect will rely on the dorms being priced so they are more affordable to students than off-campus housing, he added.

“Northeastern student neighbors of mine have said that living off-campus is less expensive than living in Northeastern dorms, which influences their decision to move off campus,” he said.

According to information on Northeastern’s website, newly constructed or recently renovated housing designated for upper-grade students at the nearby Douglas Park costs $5,515 per semester for a two-bedroom apartment. Kathy Spiegelman, vice president and chief of campus planning and development for NU, said leases are expected to be competitive with other apartment-style suites on campus.

City Councilor Tito Jackson said the Burke Street building could exacerbate housing pressures. Placing students on the very edge of campus makes it likely that they will later choose to expand the short distance into the community when they move out, he said.

“I think this would actually increase housing pressure in the adjacent neighborhoods and communities of Lower Roxbury,” Jackson said. “Having that density of students — who, at some point, are going to be very apt to want to move off of campus — on the edge of the community, I think that would be an issue that would push towards increased rents as well as upward pressures that would lead to displacement.”

Jackson argued that the housing ought to be located deeper within the campus boundaries — for instance over the Pilgrim Parking Garage or behind the student center.

Towering presence

Burke Street is only one of several potential sites that have been proposed previously for student housing. Now that the scope of the project has been unveiled, Jackson says many community members object to a building of such height, massing and density being designated for that location.

“This is an inappropriate site for a building of this height. We’re talking about 20 stories on a street that I don’t believe has anything over eight stories,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kyle Robidoux had no issue with the size if it took more students out of the housing market.

“I am comfortable with the scope and scale of the project. I think if the taller building means providing more beds in Northeastern-leased or -owned property, the better for the community.”

Long-time activist and resident Mel King said displacement is a huge issue for people on limited income in the neighborhood, and that the university could combat the push-out and resolve its housing needs by converting more of its parking lots to dorms.

“They have all that land that’s going to automobiles, and we’re in a struggle for getting appropriate housing for the people, particularly those with fixed income in Boston,” he said. “They can build over [parking lots] and provide the housing that they need.”

Tense history

Northeastern’s housing plans could reopen old wounds, calling up twenty-year-old memories of a battle over the university’s plans for student housing at Tremont Street, which runs perpendicular to Burke Street.

In the 1970s, the BRA invoked urban renewal powers and used funding from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate residents and clear the Tremont Street site. When it came time for the parcel’s disposition, it appeared to many residents that the city was biased toward selecting Northeastern as the site’s developer: According to activists in the South End and Lower Roxbury, the request for proposal process seemed designed to discourage other bidders.

As the controversy developed, activists took the issue to the HUD, filing a complaint that the local residents were not given the same level of public review granted to white communities. The dispute was resolved with an agreement by Northeastern to set aside affordable housing for residents in the student housing complex.

Unasked-for “benefits”

According to plans filed with the BRA, the university would generate community benefits by providing approximately 3,000 square feet of ground floor real estate.

“To contribute to the surrounding neighborhood, the building will include commercial space on the ground floor. These active ground floors uses will animate the street and present the internal life of the campus to the public realm,” the document states.

But the move represents the university deciding what the community wants — not asking residents and then seeking to meet those needs, said Bruce Bickerstaff, who represents the community on the Northeastern University Community Task Force. Residents had not requested student housing there, and are unlikely to either receive construction or management jobs — the university administration hired a Texas-based company for that — or to be the businesses on the ground floor, he said.

“There’ll be no benefit to anybody but the institution,” Bickerstaff said.

Northeastern and the developer have yet to determine which businesses will be located in the building, said NU spokesperson John O’Neill.

So far in the process, there has not been a sense that community voice is heard and incorporated into the university and BRA’s plans, he said. And public say is limited: Bickerstaff is among those who represent community voice to the project’s task force, but has no power to block elements of the plan.

“We are not a real authority,” he said.

UMass housing

Meanwhile UMass plans its first on-campus student housing: a 1,000-bed dorm for freshmen and transfer students, set to open on UMass Boston campus in September 2018. Capstone Development will lease land from the university to develop at a site adjacent to the school’s Peninsula Apartment complex and the Clark Athletic Center. After its completion, a nonprofit will take over management and operations, while UMass supervises student life aspects. That project is estimated to cost $120 million.