NU hopes for academic expansion

May 4, 2012
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Northeastern University (NU) would like to build a lot more classrooms in the next decade, though it doesn’t have the funds to build as much as it would like, spokespeople said at the first Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) NU Task Force meeting on April 25.

The BRA-appointed Task Force, created to advise in NU’s Institutional Master Plan (IMP) development, heard NU’s “wish list” for the next 10 years’ worth of projects, which included up to 3 million square feet of new construction.

An IMP is a comprehensive development plan that describes an institution’s existing facilities, long-range planning goals and proposed projects. The institution must update and renew its IMP periodically and must amend it whenever it adds or changes any project significantly.

The IMP serves as zoning approval for all its projects. Task Force members hold an advisory position in developing the IMP, which is slated to be finished in December.

New dorms are part of the wish list, though a small fraction compared to the last IMP. NU officials said they do not expect to increase their undergrad student population.

“Will there be a request and a desire [for more dorms]? Absolutely,” John Tobin, NU’s vice president of city and community affairs told the Gazette during an interview. But “we are desperately in need of more academic space.”

NU plans to be “surgical” in its growth in the existing campus, Tedesco said. There may also be “selective” expansion with partners toward Lower Roxbury, he added.

The controversial Grandmarc dorm project is an example of NU’s expansion with the use of a partner. Under the proposed plan, private developer PPC Land Ventures, Inc. would purchase and demolish the Huntington YMCA’s gym, then build a 17-story dorm tower in its place. PPC would then lease the dorm to NU long-term.

NU faces an antagonistic community in the IMP process, as many community members said they feel the university is trying to forcibly expand its footprint into the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I’m here because I’d love to see a positive relationship between the institution and the community,” Task Force member Carmen Pola said at the meeting.

“I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here to improve town-gown relations,” BRA project manager Gerald Autler said. “This [Task Force] is not a group of people who’ve been picked to say yes.”

“I’d like less PowerPoint and more discussion,” City Councilor Mike Ross said. “[NU should] ask people what they want to get out of this [IMP] process.”

In its wish list for its next IMP, NU listed around 3 million square feet of hoped-for construction, two-thirds of which would be for academic use—things like classrooms and lecture halls.

“We will not be building 3 million square feet. We don’t have the money,” NU Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ralph Martin said.

Martin did not say how much NU realistically aims to build.

Most of NU’s current academic buildings date from the 1960s or earlier, said Patrick Tedesco, one of the architects involved in developing NU’s new IMP.

NU built approximately 2.2 million square feet as a result of its last IMP. Most of that was new student housing in the form of the International Village on Tremont Street, a multi-tower dormitory that reaches 22 stories.

When community members asked if growth would be tackled by demolishing older buildings, building over MBTA train tracks or expanding into new sites, NU representatives stated that it was impossible to answer at this point.

No detailed plans for expansion have yet been developed—advising NU on how and where it grows will be part of the new Task Force’s duties.

The IMP is also planned to focus on improving NU’s frontage on Columbus Avenue and integrating the two parts of the campus bisected by the Orange Line tracks, Tedesco said.

For more information, see northeastern.edu/masterplan.

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