Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Boston College Unveils 10-Year Master Plan; Only Modest Changes From Previous Version

At Tuesday night's meeting of the BC Task Force, Boston College unveiled their 10-year institutional master plan that they plan to file with the city of Boston on Wednesday. Their filing will initiate the Article 80 review process for their IMP. Information provided at the meeting by John Fitzgerald of the BRA indicates that there will also be one or more "large project reviews" concurrent with the review of the IMP.

BC's proposed 10-year IMP shows a series of modest changes from the previous plan that they presented to the community over the past year. Those changes include:
  • Undergraduate dormitories are still proposed to be built on the "Brighton Campus" -- the former St. John's Seminary land bought by BC between 2004 and 2007 -- but are now proposed to be 500 beds instead of the previous 600.
  • The Brighton Dorms are now split into two sites: the first, similar to the previous location across the "spine road" from the Gymnasium (200 beds); and the second, now located at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and the proposed new entrance to the grounds across from the More Hall site (300 beds). (The latter site is where the "fine arts academic building" was located in the previous version of the plan.)
  • More Hall Dorms (undergraduate) have been proposed at 420 instead of the range 350-460 beds.
  • The total number of undergraduate beds added is down to 610 from 640.
  • Athletic facilities (baseball stadium, softball stadium, and two multipurpose fields) are still proposed for the north end of the Brighton Campus site, but one multipurpose field has been moved out of the baseball outfield to be a separate field located at the currently-fenced parking lot. The support building (e.g., batting cages, lockers, tennis courts, indoor track) will now be underground -- underneath the multipurpose fields adjacent to Bishop Peterson Hall.
  • The baseball stadium is now proposed to be 1500 instead of 2000 seats.
  • The multipurpose field closest to Lake Street is now proposed to be natural turf, while the other three fields are still proposed to continue to be artificial turf.
  • The housing proposed for the Foster Urban Wild (188-196 Foster Street) is back down to a 70 bed facility; it had been recently described as 90 beds, but was originally described as 70. Its usage was described now as "graduate student / faculty" housing instead of the previous "graduate student / seminarian."
  • The Brighton Fields Parking Garage has been moved further away from Lane Park houses, no longer has tennis courts on top (I believe they were mentioned once to be part of the underground support building), and have been increased to 500 from 200 spaces.
  • The museum and fine arts academic buildings have been moved further east to straddle the current entrance road, which is due west of the former Cardinal's residence. (The diagrams did not show even a preliminary design for these buildings.)
  • BC is proposing to restrict their undergraduates from living off-campus in one- or two-family houses, but still allow them to live off-campus in three-family or larger structures (such as 2000 Commwealth Avenue); this idea had been floated privately to many residents since the spring.
  • A BC employee mortgage assistance program is proposed to help BC staff purchase houses in Allston-Brighton.
  • BC's viewgraph stated that the MBTA's preferred option for locating the BC B-line station is the site in the center of Commonwealth Avenue; the MBTA has not previously spoken either way to the community.
Most of these are small or subtle changes to the previous plan which don't change its broad outlines or themes.

I don't have an electronic copy of their presentation or their IMPNF, so some of the above descriptions might be vague or confusing to the casual reader. BC's presentation at the meeting, as well as their regulatory filing documents, are likely to be posted at their website in the next few days. The Boston Globe will likely run a lead story in Wednesday morning's newspaper which, based on their previous coverage, will probably have an accompanying graphic in color.

What in the Plan is Unchanged?

Much of BC's master plan is unchanged from previous versions that have been presented through the past year or so:
  • Undergraduate dormitories still located on the former St. John's Seminary land, despite repeated opposition from Brighton neighbors throughout the year.
  • Baseball stadium still located close to Lane Park houses, softball stadium next to it, two multipurpose fields, all fully lighted for (presumably) regular nighttime use, etc.
  • Edmonds Hall, with 790 beds of undergraduate housing, is still proposed to be demolished to make way for a Recreation Center.
  • BC still proposes to move St. Thomas More Road further east where it intersects with Commonwealth Avenue.
  • Shea Field Dorms still reach the eastern-most part of the parcel, directly across the street from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
  • Housing still proposed for the Foster Urban Wilds abutting Orthodox Jewish community on Portina Road, including demolishing the three houses currently on one corner of the site.
And so on.

No mention was made, by the way, of the conversion use of St. Williams Hall. BC's current IMPA moves its occupants to Bishop Peterson Hall, but does not move newer occupants into St. Williams Hall. Previous information is that More Hall administrative offices would move to St. Williams Hall. I assume this will be detailed in the IMPNF. (BC's student newspaper, The Heights, reports that, "St. Williams Hall will be used for the new School of Theology and Ministry." This would appear to be in conflict with the IMPANF submitted in October 2007, which proposed to move the STM to Bishop Peterson Hall. Clarification is needed.)

How Did the Community Respond?

Most of the responses from members of the task force and the community were about BC's plan for undergraduate housing: arguing strongly for BC to increase the number of on-campus undergraduate beds in their master plan, opposing undergraduate dorms altogether on the Brighton Campus, and questioning how BC balanced the need for dorms with their desire for open space in the form of internal courtyards.

Getting More Students Onto Campus. Task force member Kevin Carragee detailed how BC could house all their students on-campus with dense (tall) building at the MODS and RecPlex sites. "I don't understand why it can't be exploited for more housing," he said. "I don't see why [it's] only four stories."

Many comments repeated desire for 5-6 (or even 7-8) story dormitories on the Main Campus as the preferred solution for how to move all the remaining students back onto campus. "I don't understand why the MODS [replacement] can't be six stories," said task force member Tim Schofield.

Thomas Keady, Jr., Vice President of Governmental and Community Relations at Boston College, objected to any building taller than four stories based on BC's ideas of student formation issues. "We have done our best to house our students," he said. "BC is never going to house 100%" of the students on-campus, because some of the students are commuters. "We are opposed to seven-to-eight story buildings," said Keady.

Schofield countered that "it seems selfish to us" that BC opposes taller dormitories on the Main Campus.

How many students commute, i.e., live with their parents and commute daily? I heard the words "around 100" come from the vicinity of two BC officials, while one of them simultaneously nodded his head. That means BC's plan leaves another 590 students living off-campus in the neighborhood. "We can, with the BRA's help, find room for 600 more beds on that [main] campus," continued Carragee.

Opposition to Brighton Dorms on the Former St. John's Seminary Land. Many of the comments from the audience expressed continued opposition to the proposal to build undergraduate housing on the Brighton Campus. "We've told you, for months, that we don't want it," said Alex Selvig.

One resident gave a more measured response. Shelby Marshall said that "if the students are not in the neieghborhood, [then] I don't have a philosophical issue" with undergraduate dorms on the Brighton Campus. Since BC's proposal leaves 590 non-commuter students living off-campus, Marshall's condition appears not to have been met by BC's proposed master plan.

While they did not speak at the task force meeting, many of our elected representatives have already come out in opposition to BC's proposal for Brighton Dorms north of Commonwealth Avenue. (See related story.)

The Brighton Dorms were originally proposed along the spine road next to the Gymnasium, but the 10-year plan puts one dorm closer to Lake Street -- right next to the existing library and in the direct line-of-sight for Lake Street residents. BC officials thought only the roof of the four-story dorm would be visible from Lake Street, but several residents said that they can already see nearly the entire side of the two-story library.

As best I could tell, BC officials were checking out the line-of-sight only to Secretary Galvin's house, not to Selvig's and Pizzo's further down the street. One resident told me after the meeting that, with their siting of one undergraduate dormitory further away from Lane Park but closer to Lake Street, he felt BC was pitting one street against the other in order to divide the neighborhood.

Public Versus Private Open Space. Other comments at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the process by which BC is taking open space away from more public areas in order to have more private, inner courtyards in their quadrangles. Alderman Lisle Baker of Ward 7 in Newton pointed out that BC's plan "maximizes internal open space," but that it also "needs to respect open space of public areas" adjacent to public roads, parks, etc. Similar criticism was levelled against Harvard's science complex.

Backfilling Students Into Neighborhood Apartments. Senator Steve Tolman expressed his concern that, if more BC students are moved back onto campus, then students from other colleges and universities around Boston will "backfill" into the newly-vacant Brighton apartments. He pointed out -- which repeats comments that Councilor Jerry McDermott has made earlier in the year -- that this appears to be what happened in the neighborhoods near to Boston University. He argued that the problem needed to be addressed as part of the overall master plan.

Screw-Up on the First Night of Hanukkah

In an obvious screw-up, the BRA and BC scheduled this meeting to present their new master plan on the first night of Hanukkah. BC and BRA officials are regular readers (and posters) to the "BC_Neighbors_Forum" google group, where Alex Selvig noted on November 13th that the December 4th meeting would conflict with Hanukkah; on the same day I wrote another email to John Fitzgerald and Gerald Autler, project managers at the BRA, notifying them of the same. They appear to have ignored issues raised about the date of the meeting.

Keady opened Tuesday's BC Task Force meeting noting the scheduling conflict with Hannukah. He noted that they had met with the Civic Jewish Community on November 14th (as I had also noted here), and that he had (apparently quite recently) scheduled another meeting with the Orthodox community at Shaloh House on December 18th. While stating he wasn't Jewish, Keady said that he understood that while Hanukkah (or it's first night) might be a holiday, it isn't a "Holy Day" (e.g., see stories such as this one).

Rabbi Dan Rodkin of Shaloh House nonetheless showed up at Tuesday night's BC Task Force meeting about a half-hour into the proceedings. He noted that he couldn't stay long because his kids were waiting for him, and said that "our community is very insulted" by scheduling the BC task force meeting that night. "We would like to be here and hear what you have to say," he continued. "This is very wrong." Keady stated again that they had an agreement for a meeting on the 18th, and Rabbi Rodkin left to carry on his celebrations.

The task force later decided that they would also attend the Shaloh House meeting on December 18th as an official meeting of their group. The task force made the right move after the blunder by BC and the BRA.

Cost of the Institutional Master Plan

Boston College was recently listed as having a $1.75 billion endowment, but their "strategic plan" calls for $1.6 billion in capital expenditures, according to BC's student newspaper, The Heights. BC recently obtained $177 million in tax-exempt bonds, which brought their current, total debt up to $630 million, according to The Heights.

I don't think they've maxed out their credit cards yet, but having a master plan's capital expenses, when combined with existing debt, that substantially exceeds the size of their endowment seems rather optimistic.

The Heights has a big mistake in their story:
The BRA, Task Force, and the Boston Zoning Commission will review the proposal and send their respective recommendations to Menino, who has the ultimate authority to approve or deny the proposal.
No, the Mayor of Boston has no statutory authority for approval or rejection of institutional master plans under Article 80 of the zoning code; that authority rests solely with the BRA Board and the Zoning Board. Mayor Menino may exercise de facto authority, however...

EDIT (7:00 am): The Boston Globe's front-page article, "Grand Expansion at BC," can be found here.

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