Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Animated and Angry Crowd Confronts Boston College's Revised Master Plan

"No dorms on Brighton Campus! Change this plan, please!" [Referring to proposed dormitories on the former St. John's Seminary land purchased by Boston College in 2004-7.]

"You're taking your problem and making it our problem!" "It's not on-campus!" [Referring to BC's purchase of the apartment building at 2000 Commonwealth Avenue, which they intend to turn into an off-campus undergraduate dormitory.]

"That's blackmail!" [Referring to attempts by Jack Dunn, BC's Director of Public Affairs, to withhold more popular elements of their master plan unless the entire plan would be approved by the city and neighborhood.]

"Build them higher!" [Referring to five-story dormitories proposed to replace the two-story Mods dormitories on BC's main campus in Chestnut Hill.]

These were repeated shouts from the audience that time and again interrupted Boston College's presentation of their revised institutional master plan Monday night at the Yawkey Center on BC's campus.

Neighborhood meetings can often be total yawners, where residents argue for hours over the smallest details of setbacks, zoning variances, brick color, and window design.

Not so on Monday night. The meeting was nothing short of a raucous affair. The air was theatrically punctuated by rapid-fire flashbulbs from two news photographers.

Thirteen months ago, Thomas Keady, Jr., Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs at BC, said at one such meeting that he didn't enjoy getting his "head kicked in." There was little question: Monday night was more than just another head-bashing.

BC officials, Boston Redevelopment Authority project managers, and BC Task Force members struggled to keep order in a room crowded with 200-250 people who kept shouting out their anger, frustration, exasperation, and profound disagreement with the undergraduate housing proposals that BC presented as their response to the Scoping Determination on their 10-year IMP issued in February by the BRA.

The university passed a significant milestone Monday by embracing the concept of providing university-owned housing for 100% of their undergraduate students.

University officials insisted that the neighborhood's price for this achievement would be accepting conversion of an off-campus apartment building into a dormitory and construction of new dormitories for the former St. John's Seminary land. Many neighborhood residents disagreed strongly with both premises, insisting that the solution lies in constructing more and/or taller dormitories on BC's main campus in Chestnut Hill.


BC Proposes 100% Undergraduate Housing -- But Some Will Be Off-Campus in the Neighborhood

Keady explained to the audience that there were two major changes to their undergraduate housing proposal.

First, he confirmed that approximately three weeks ago BC entered into a purchase and sale agreement to buy the 17-story apartment building at 2000 Commonwealth Avenue. While Keady claimed the purchase was "one of the worst-kept secrets in Allston-Brighton," many residents of nearby buildings spoke -- or shouted -- that they knew nothing about it until the last few days. "I haven't heard anything about it," said a resident of nearby 1988 Comm Ave.

The obvious reason why they hadn't heard about the purchase? The story broke a month ago online, but was not picked up by the mainstream media -- in part because BC officials refused to speak about the topic at two neighborhood meetings earlier this month.

Second, BC was now presenting a plan that would house 100% of their undergraduates in university-controlled housing -- some of which would be that new building at 2000 Comm Ave. "It's not on-campus!" came the audience replies.

It was this second point that was met with repeated, yet measured, praise from many in the task force and audience.

"The fact that this is now BC's goal is a huge achievement, because it has been the neighborhood's goal for about 15 years," said task force member Paul Berkeley.

"I applaud the 100%" target for undergraduate housing, said task force member Kevin Carragee. He gave his biggest praise to the residents, however, who kept pushing for the goal. "I want to thank the people who have been at these meetings for 15 years," he said.

Radnor Road resident Bruce Kline summarized the meeting at the end, saying that, aside from the addition of 2000 Commonwealth to their plan as a new undergraduate dormitory, the plan "is basically the same" as before.

Kline appeared accurate in his observations. In this revised plan, BC only added 110 additional beds to their main campus -- while many in the neighborhood wanted them to add between 500 (to move all the beds in the Brighton Dorms to the main campus) to 1450 (to house all their undergraduates in on-campus, rather than in off-campus, university-controlled housing).

The BRA required BC to explore two alternate studies for housing 500 additional undergraduates on their main campus, which would eliminate the need for dormitories on the former seminary land. BC's presentation offered no fundamental impediments uncovered by either study, yet rejected both in favor of a plan that was only slightly changed from the IMPNF -- and kept the Brighton Dorms in nearly the same configuration and size as before.

"I'm a little perplexed about the consideration of options," said task force member Tim Schofield. "It did sound like [the other two options] were feasible."


2000 Comm Ave: BC Official Tries Unsuccessfully to Play One Neighborhood Against Another

A significant number of residents in buildings near to 2000 Comm Ave attended Monday's meeting and expressed their displeasure with BC's pending purchase of the property.

"It's going to lower the quality of life in the neighborhood," said Lamya Shahabuddin, a board member of the building at 1933 Comm Ave. "When we bought those condos, we didn't sign up to live on campus."

Even BC Professor of Mathematics Mark Reeder, also a board member at 1933 Comm Ave, expressed his opposition to the purchase. "BC is trying to transfer their problem [to be] Brighton's problem," he said, in apparent reference to the difficulties in controlling student behavior.

One of BC's explanations for the basis of their housing plan was to create more open space on their main campus by moving some uses, such as student dormitories, further away onto the Brighton Campus -- or now at 2000 Comm Ave. "Not enough wild grass [for students] to play in?" said Reeder. "That's BC's problem, not Brighton's problem."

Keady had suggested earlier in the evening that converting the building to undergraduate dormitories was something that the neighbors of the Radnor Road, Lane Park, and Kirkwood Road area were supporting.

Lane Park resident Sandy Furman only partially backed him up. Furman said that, if faced with competing options of students in houses versus students in 2000 Comm Ave, he would choose the latter. "But it doesn't have to be that way," he said, indicating that BC had other options available, such as taller buildings on their main campus.

Shelby Marshall, Furman's Lane Park neighbor, indicated that the apartment building is already 40% occupied by BC students, which Nick Fondas, another Lane Park resident, speculated might otherwise tip over to 75-80% student-occupied within a few years. "I would rather it be a supervised than unsupervised dorm," said Marshall.

Other residents wanted nothing of Keady's attempts to pit the Radnor Road/Lane Park neighbors against those on Commonwealth Avenue. "I resent that BC would play the Radnor Road neighbors against 2000 Comm Ave," said Kirkwood Road resident Lisa Lieberman to audience applause.


"We Are Now in a Question Of How"

Task force member Kevin Carragee said these words to describe how the debate between the neighborhood, BRA, and BC was no longer focused on whether or not BC should house 100% of their undergraduate students. The discussion has now switched to where those dormitories should be located -- i.e., "how" to achieve the agreed-upon goal of full housing.

In short: location, location, location.


Repeated Neighborhood Proposals for a Tall Dormitory on Mods Site

Carragee continued with his proposed solution: "Why not go high on the Mods site?" He referred to the location of the two-story Mods dormitories, constructed as temporary housing in the 1970s -- yet eleven of those buildings would still be standing in 2019 in BC's proposed plan.

In the strangest recurring theme of the evening, Keady didn't answer Carragee's question. When asked if he was going to answer it, Keady simply replied, "No."

Shouts from the crowd requested him to answer, but more silence followed. Later questions by the audience repeatedly brought up the same question, demanding an answer -- any answer at all -- but still drew no response from Keady.

Jack Dunn, BC's Director of Public Affairs, eventually stood up out of his front-row seat, grabbed a microphone, and answered the question. "The issue for us is an issue of density," he said. "Our conclusion was that 4700 students in 40 acres [on the main campus] was the limit."

Dunn remained standing next to the podium. Every time the same question resurfaced, he repeated the same answer, and Keady stood by watching. Dunn's stock answer began to be met by laughter from the crowd.

Falkland Street resident Donal Carroll offered a comeback, noting that BC has paid its consultants probably hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of dollars to draw up the designs for the master plan. "If you're unable to house 12 extra individuals per acre on a 40-acre site," he said, then BC probably needs to find some different consultants, you know, to get their money's worth. Laughter ensued, drowning out Carroll's words.

One resident went to the projected map on the screen and demonstrated how small a footprint the 17-story building at 2000 Comm Ave would form if an exact, duplicate copy were constructed on the Mods site.

A version of his visual is displayed here to the right. The 2000 Comm Ave apartment building footprint is the small, gray, L-shaped building above and to the right of the proposed, new recreation center (building #19).

The implication is clear: very little green space on their main campus would be sacrificed to put 560 beds of undergraduate housing in such a building. BC could still have their wide-open main campus.


Are BC Officials Themselves Exhibiting NIMBY-ism?

In watching the meeting unfold, I couldn't help but think: if BC would agree to build such a dormitory at the Mods site on their main campus instead of the Brighton Dorms, they might very well be able to convert heavy neighborhood opposition against their housing proposals into broader support.

But, for some reason, at least one BC official on Monday night was persistently refusing to consider the option of constructing such a building on their own campus.

Several months ago, BC's Dunn resorted to name-calling by labelling neighborhood opponents of the Brighton Dorms as holding a position that amounts to "NIMBY-ism" (Not In My Back Yard).

Have the tables now turned?

When BC decided to pursue purchasing 2000 Comm Ave, they probably viewed it as a tactical victory that would curry favor from the city and quiet down neighborhood opposition to their plans in the near term.

Once BC showed their hand by expressing interest in purchasing 2000 Comm Ave -- with the intention to convert it into an undergraduate dormitory -- they stumbled into what I can only see to be a vast, strategic blunder on their part.

If such a tall building is a perfectly acceptable dormitory for their students off-campus, then they have implicitly accepted the proposition that it is an equally acceptable model for a dormitory on-campus. But BC officials are racked by inconsistency. They want the tall dormitory in the neighborhood, but they don't want an equally tall dormitory on their own campus.

Is the rejection of a tall dormitory on the main campus an act of NIMBY-ism on the part of BC officials?


The Silent Type

While Keady's silence on the issue of a tall dormitory was noticeable, somebody else's silence probably escaped the notice of most Brighton residents.

Patrick Keating, BC's Executive Vice President, who is in charge of long-range planning for the university, attended Monday's meeting of the BC Task Force. It is the first time I have ever seen him in attendance at a meeting of the task force.

I have long wondered how the neighborhood opposition to key elements in BC's undergraduate housing plan filters through the usual attendees from Governmental and Community Affairs (and Public Affairs) to the top university officials in charge of making decisions on the long-range plan, i.e., Executive VP Keating and Fr. William Leahy, S. J., President of BC. Do the intermediaries down-play residents' opposition? Do the absent executives not believe in the neighborhood opposition because they don't hear it first-hand?

Even though Keating was completely silent throughout the meeting, there was no filtering of the neighborhood's positions on the issues. Keating heard every shouted word himself.

Leahy, however, did not. He issued a press release instead, saying that the plan is:
“a manifestation of BC’s desire to be a good neighbor by taking students out of the neighborhood and providing increased stability for local residence [sic], while also addressing Boston College’s most pressing needs.”

Mainstream Media Pick Up the Story

The Boston Globe has a brief story up about BC's revised plan; a longer story is here. Monday's meeting occurred after their deadline, so it is not mentioned. WBZ radio has an audio story on the revised proposal which quotes Dunn but fails to pursue any alternative viewpoints. Boston Herald reporters have now been seen in Brighton for the first time covering the BC student housing story; they appear to have later deadlines than the Globe.


UPDATE: Allston-Brighton TAB makes reference to the mayhem. The Herald had a second story the following day which focused on the meeting. (The first article focused on BC's press release.) Expect a story from the Boston Bulletin later this week.

UPDATE: Here's the Bulletin story.


Image of shouting woman from ronsho provided through a Creative Commons license.

15 comments:

10 year said...

BRAVO MICHAEL. Thank you ever so much for your continued coverage on this subject. You are a gem of a citizen and a TRUE ASSET to our community. Not only are you brilliant, but you have a lot of COMMON SENSE. Now I'm just waiting on B.C. (again...........)

landladylike said...

Thank you Mike for a balanced and thorough story. We can only hope the newspaper reporters there will be so accurate. Maybe since you beat them to it they will read your posting and take your lead.
However, I am cynically awaiting the headlines "Neighbors Cheer BC 100% Target"

Michael Pahre said...

I've added links to mainstream media stories at the end of the post. Reload the page to get the links.

Rob said...

Dr. Pahre, did you make any comments at the meeting?

Michael Pahre said...

No.

TBSBC03 said...

I appreciate your recap of last night's meeting. As a BC alum, I don't mean to inflame, but it seems like the goalposts keep shifting. I think you all are perfectly within your rights to want BC to house 100% of the students on campus. But if BC agrees to meet you on that, you then want to dictate where on campus they have to live? I mean, what if BC were to say to you, "Raze all the the houses on Lake St. and build a high-rise that you all can live in"? Is that reasonable? They don't want to build a 17 story building in the middle of the Mods because they don't want to. Maybe it's because it'd be an eyesore, maybe it's because they want to keep some of the Mods, maybe it's because they just want to piss you off. I don't know, but it's their land to do with what they will. BC's goal isn't to jam as many students into lower campus as possible, it's to try to design a world-class campus.

The 100% on-campus goal is a significant compromise, but it seems that the residents of Brighton will only accept unconditional surrender from BC. This isn't a good-faith approach (not that I'd claim that BC has always dealt in good faith). These conversations are going to go on until the end of time, and I don't think for a second that you all should just capitulate to BC's whims. But there has to be some sort of middle ground, a middle ground that it seems BC is moving toward when it says that all the students will live on campus.

Michael Pahre said...

@ TBSBC03:

I appreciate your comments.

I would like to clarify your language, however. You stated several times that BC has accepted a 100% on-campus goal. That is not correct, and no BC official would agree with the term you used.

2000 Commonwealth Avenue will not be an "on-campus dormitory"; instead, it will be an "off-campus, university-controlled dormitory."

The neighborhood has pushed for 100% on-campus housing; BC has responded with 100% university-controlled housing.

A lot of the discussion revolves around this distinction as to what are the boundaries of the campus. You might try re-reading the post above with this in mind.

bostonfoodie said...

Michael,
I'm concerned about the nature, and origin, of the strongest opponents of the BC plan, and what their true intent is. My family emigrated from Ireland to Brighton during the civil war, and we remain here to this day. The community activists I have seen at these meetings I never knew growing up in the neighborhood, and speaking to relatives and friends around here, appear to be very RECENT transplants, people who showed up with full knowledge of the presence of BC in this community. My family, and those that we have known in Brighton for generations, whole heartedly support BC for the jobs they provide, the education they provide to our sons and daughters, and the continued support they have given our families and our community. Most recently, BC's school of education took over the ailing St. Columbkill school, saving it from ruin. I wish these contributions could be brought to the attention of the new Brighton residents, as opposed to the vitriol which has developed.

In sum, BC is an ASSET to our community, not a liability. Economically, Boston has few golden geese remaining. We have the medical industry, the universities, and a rapidly dwindling financial industry. It is in our communal best interest to encourage their growth and development, not restrict it. These efforts to harm BC's development, only harm our community in the end.

Nicholas said...

Does any other university (around BC’s size) have 100% on campus housing? or at least working with the neighborhood on 100% university-controlled housing?

Michael Pahre said...

@ nicholas:

Harvard University has had 100% on-campus -- not just university-controlled -- housing for quite some time.

Patrick said...

Michael,

Harvard also has roughly 2,000 less undergraduates than BC. So the correct response to Nicholas' question is "No." There is no other comparable school in the Boston metro area that provides 100% university housing.

TBSBC03 said...

Fair enough. That's an important distinction....I guess I was viewing the issue with 2000 Comm Ave. to be a relatively minor one, which isn't fair to those neighbors.

Type your screen name said...

How is it that a building soon to be owned by BC on Comm Ave, a stones throw away from the BC campus is not considered "on campus"? BC will own it so it's part of the campus.
If you don't consider this building to be part of the BC campus, how can you say all Harvard student housing is on campus? Harvard residences are spread all over Cambridge and Allston. Harvard grads like yourself may like to think that the Harvard campus includes all of Cambridge and Allston but it doesn't.

crimsoneagle said...

Michael,

As a recent BC grad now at Harvard, and having just completed a year living in a Harvard dorm ("North Hall") that was originally constructed as a Holiday Inn, I'm not sure I understand your distinction between "on-campus" and "university-controlled." North Hall is certainly university-controlled, but given my daily commute several blocks up and down Mass Ave (not university-controlled) in order to get to the law school, I would argue that it is decidedly not on-campus. Or do you consider it "on-campus" merely because it is owned by Harvard?

Similarly, several undergraduate dorms at Harvard (Greenough, Pennypacker, Hurlbut, all of Adams House, parts of Quincy, Kirkland, etc.) were once off-campus aparment buildings that Harvard subsequently bought and turned into university-controlled student housing. Are you designating these as "on-campus" because they have been in Harvard's posession now for "quite some time?" And if so, what is your time threshold (North Hall was still a Holiday Inn 10 years ago)?

Lastly, I applaud your effort to credit images licensed through Creative Commons. I'd be curious to know the licensing agreement you have with respect to the doctored images from BC's masterplan.

Michael Pahre said...

@ patrick: 9000 vs. 6500 undergraduates is of comparable size. If you slice it any more thinly, then every university will be categorized into a bin of one. Yes, we should not compare School of MFA with BC with UMASS/Boston. But BC/BU/Harvard/Northeastern seem to be fair comparisons in my mind, since all are, or are moving towards being, residential universities.

@ "type your screen name" and crimsoneagle: Certainly a valid argument as to what about Harvard's undergraduate housing can be categorized as on- or off-campus.

If you use a definition of contiguous campus, then freshmen housing (Harvard Yard; Greenough; Pennypacker) is all on-campus.

The nine river houses (sophomore-senior) are pretty close to contiguous, too, although you might have to skip a half-block here or there.

The three quad houses are contiguous with each other, but not with the rest of the campus. Historically, they comprise the Radcliffe Quad, housing for now-defunct (absorbed) Radcliffe College. They more closely parallel BC's Newton Campus (BC Law School plus freshmen dormitories): contiguous with itself, but separated from the main campus.

On the contiguity argument, I believe that 2000 Comm Ave counts as off-campus. Note that BC officials are not calling it on-campus, either. Read their press release or the news reports. They appear to agree with me.

Harvard's graduate student housing is more spread all around the place, as your note about Harvard Law School's North Hall fits in. The discussion about BC housing right now is all about undergraduate, not graduate.

In the bigger, historical picture, Harvard and BC do differ markedly. Harvard College has traditionally been residential, while BC was traditionally much more of a commuter school. BC has in recent decades switched over to heavily residential. BC officials quoted there are now only 50 full-time, daytime undergraduate student commuters (i.e., who live at home, not in independent apartments). That is a big change, which is why there is the issue to build undergraduate housing to match the kind of school that BC has become.


Copyright? BC's IMP map claims none. Take a look for yourself. I don't even have to resort to a claim of fair use. The Boston Globe reproduced the map without any reference to copyright. (PR materials are usually copyright-free, otherwise the press could never use the material to write a story.)