Officials push NU for more dorms

After a notable absence from Northeastern University (NU) community task force meetings so far this year, state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez and City Councilor Mike Ross both clamored for more on-campus housing at the Sept. 20 task force meeting.

NU, meanwhile, outlined its first potential projects for its next Institutional Master Plan (IMP), which may include several multi-purpose buildings that would share academic space and on-campus housing.

NU also introduced the idea of community programs, such as small-scale loans for local business, currently under consideration.

“It was the right time” to go to a meeting in person, Sánchez said, “because of where the dialogue with Northeastern is going.” The people in that room were trying to figure out how to keep Mission Hill from being flooded with NU students like it was after the last IMP process in 2000, he added.

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.

The BRA-selected task force, comprised of neighbors and elected officials, holds an advisory position in IMP development. Communities involved in the task force include Mission Hill, the Fenway and Roxbury.

NU stated in previous task force meetings that its primary focus for this IMP would be creating and updating academic space, with only a small focus on creating more on-campus housing.

Ross and Sánchez, however, both pushed for more on-campus housing to take some pressure off the neighborhood rental market.

Ross took time to present a PowerPoint presentation to  the group on Mission Hill’s current off-campus student population. He  stated that between the springs of 2009 and 2012, the Hill’s undergrad population climbed 34 percent.

The largest percentage of that total belonged to NU undergrads, which climbed from 1,080 in spring 2009 to 1,341 in spring 2012, an increase of 24 percent, according to the student census mandated by the City’s University Accountability Ordinance.

“It’s not about graphs, it’s about families being displaced,” said Pat Flaherty, a Mission Hill resident and a senior project manager at Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services.

“The impact on the neighborhood is harder now that it has ever been,” Sánchez said. “It is too expensive to live in the community.”

Mission Hill resident Susan St. Claire said that in the last few years, five community residences on her street have been replaced by 10 all-student units, she said.

“The schools are driving out the residents. It’s institutional expansion,” she added.

NU is still working on the last dorm project from its last IMP—the controversial Grandmarc on Huntington Avenue, which will house 700 students. NU is keeping its promise to maintain its enrollment at about 15,000 so far, admitting only 2,700 new freshmen this year, the lowest number in “many, many” years, NU Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ralph Martin said.

That is to balance out the fact that NU’s student retention—the percentage of students that do not drop out—is higher than ever.

According to Martin, NU’s goal is to house 75 percent of undergrads on-campus, a total of 11,250 students. After the expected 2014 completion of the Grandmarc, NU is expected to hit 67 percent. NU currently houses 62 percent of students on-campus.

Starting in 2014, NU will require freshmen as well as sophomores to live on-campus.

“We feel confident that getting to 75 percent will get us to a certain point of distinction,” Martin said, comparing NU to other urban colleges of a similar size.

Martin did not give a date for the 75 percent goal.

According to Martin, there is no waiting list for students wanting to live on-campus, indicating that students prefer to live off-campus. Students are “clamoring” for more on-campus amenities, Martin said, including entertainment, athletic and meeting spaces.

“We spend every day of the week dealing with this issue” of housing, Flaherty said. “There needs to be a balance in the neighborhood.”

“Other schools have an impact but they’ve stepped up. Northeastern’s silence has been deafening,” Sánchez said, noting that he had never had a discussion with Martin. Martin retorted that Sánchez had never called him.

The IMP, as NU stated in previous task force meetings, is expected to focus on underused buildings and underdeveloped areas of the campus.

The first proposed projects are redeveloping Ryder Hall, the Burstein/Rubenstein building and the Gainsboro garage. First proposals by the consulting architects show them all becoming multi-use towers between 12 and 22 stories and including academic and housing space.

A revitalized Science Quad is also being considered.

Task force member Bruce Bickerstaff requested a timeline for when decisions need to be made in the IMP process, as well as a list of which parcels NU prioritizes for development.

Martin mentioned two possible community-oriented programs NU is considering: micro-loans geared to local businesses and a “revolving loan fund” to assist in the creation and maintenance of affordable housing in adjacent neighborhoods. Both ideas were embraced by the audience.

“It’s about investing in us, investing in the community,” Sánchez said. “Let’s try and make this a more meaningful process.”

“Those are things we’ve only begun to explore,” Martin said.

Clarification: This article has been edited to clarify Ross’ presentation on Mission Hill’s student population.

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