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Seeking rights as designated developers

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Black developers sue Northeastern
An architect’s rendering of a dormitory Northeastern University plans to build at 840 Tremont Street.

Northeastern University is planning a 26-story, 975-bed dormitory at the corner of Tremont Street and Melnea Cass Boulevard that will dominate the Lower Roxbury skyline.

But while Northeastern owns Parcel 18-1A, the land on which it plans to build the dormitory, a consortium of Black business owners say they own the rights to develop the parcel and are crying foul over what they say is the university’s attempt to push them out of the parcel.

Henry Owens, an attorney representing Columbia Plaza Associates, says his client owns the rights to develop the parcel, originally awarded by the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1990.

“They have the right to determine how the land is developed,” he told the Banner. “They have the right to participate as a joint venture in the development.”

On Dec. 15, Owens filed a complaint in Suffolk Superior Court seeking to block Northeastern University from moving forward with its plans for the dormitory.

The contested parcel of land is part of Parcel 18, land that was acquired by the state in the 1960s for a planned inner-belt highway that was stopped after South End, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain residents protested. Cleared of buildings, the parcel sat vacant until the 1980s, when the city instituted a parcel-to-parcel linkage program that tied development of downtown publicly-owned land to development in Roxbury.

Under the program, development rights went to Columbia Plaza Associates (CPA), which was then headed by Ken Guscott and Paul Chan and included 37 Black, Chinese and Latino investors. Parcel 18 was linked to the development of the Kingston/Bedford parcel, which the team developed into One Lincoln Street — when completed the largest skyscraper developed by a minority firm.

For Parcel 18, CPA developed a new headquarters for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The building was completed in 1994. Registry employees, however, many of whom were resistant to working in Roxbury, complained of poor air quality. Bank of America foreclosed on the building in 1996 and Northeastern acquired it in 1997.

The university in 1999 agreed to form a joint venture with CPA to develop Parcel 18. The university partnered with the group to develop a parking garage on Parcel 18.

But in 2009, Northeastern developed a 22-story, three-tower dormitory on Parcel 18, called International Village, and did so without involving CPA as co-developers. In 2016, the minority developers filed a lawsuit against the university alleging it failed to honor the 1999 agreement.

A judge in 2017 ruled that the joint venture was never agreed upon and that, because CPA waited more than four years to file an unfair business practice lawsuit, Northeastern owed the group nothing.

In the current instance, CPA members, who still maintain development rights over Parcel 18, are suing before Northeastern puts shovels in the ground on its planned 26-story dormitory. In 2019, Owens contacted Northeastern and Boston Planning and Development Agency Director Brian Golden to request a meeting to discuss the development of Parcel 18-1A. Neither the university nor Golden responded.

“To this day I have not had a response to my letter,” Owens said. “Not even a phone call.”

In their complaint, CPA is charging Northeastern with engaging in unfair acts and practices in appropriating CPA’s rights to sub-parcel 18-1A. The developers are asking the court to affirm their rights as developers of the parcel and are seeking an injunction against Northeastern to restrain it from amending the institutional master plan it filed with the BPDA in 2007 in which CPA was slated to develop a hotel on the site.