Editorial: Questioning NEU’s dorm

October 14, 2011
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Questioning NEU’s dorm

Northeastern University’s dorm project already looked bizarre: demolishing part of the historic YMCA building and sticking a student skyscraper atop it. But these are desperate times, and Mayor Thomas Menino has rightly pressured Northeastern to get its students out of neighborhood housing.

But state officials have been highlighting some serious concerns with the project.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) slammed the brakes. The MHC is not exactly known as a meat-eating watchdog. In such controversial projects as the Gardner Museum demo and expansion, it has rubber-stamped the plans as long the institution agrees to put a few old bricks on display in the lobby.

But the MHC went ballistic on the Northeastern dorm, demanding alternative designs and scolding the university for stubbornly failing to follow basic process. At the very least, some serious flubbing was going on.

Last month, a Suffolk County Superior Court judge dismissed resident lawsuits against the dorm project, but also went out of her way to say that they raised troubling points. Those concerns include that the project is sneaking around zoning code limits and enabling a private, commercial development that could become something other than a dorm.

The city’s Landmarks Commission was skeptical of the dorm project. But it stands alone among city agencies. The biggest dorm supporter is the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has a notorious history of doctoring the rules to permit pet projects with disastrous results, from the Filene’s hole at Downtown Crossing to the Joslin Diabetes Center wasteland in the LMA.

It is likely that the dorm will be built in any case. But it is troubling that only state officials and neighborhood residents seem to notice the oddities here.

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