Some skepticism on planned NU dorm’s ability to draw students off of Mission Hill

March 4, 2016
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By Josie Grove

Special to the Gazette

About 40 people attended a Feb. 23 meeting on Northeastern University’s (NU) plan to build a 798-bed undergraduate student residence at 10 Burke St., with some NU task force members and attendees expressing skepticism that the dorm will be able to draw students off of Mission Hill.

Some people at the meeting on NU campus said they doubted NU students would willingly leave cheaper Mission Hill housing with fewer rules for the on-campus apartments, which are more expensive and have more rules. College students living on Mission Hill has caused problems because of loud parties and overcrowding.

The site at 10 Burke St., currently a parking lot, is slated to become a twenty-story building, containing 207 apartment-style student residences.

The BRA is involved because the university wants to change its institutional master plan (IMP), which was approved by the BRA in 2013. An IMP is a comprehensive development plan that describes an institution’s existing facilities, long-range planning goals and proposed projects. The plan had originally called for 350 to 600 beds in one or two ten-story buildings on the site.

“They sought to include more than those 600 beds in this one building, and in order to do that, they need to exceed the height in the institutional master plan,” said Gerald Autler of the BRA.

NU has 13,500 undergraduate students, of which just under half currently live off-campus in the surrounding neighborhoods. Student housing is a priority for the institution, said Kathy Spiegelman, NU vice president and chief of campus planning, with over 700 undergraduates on the waiting list to get on-campus housing and nearly 600 more in nearby apartments that the university leases for them. The IMP calls for 1,000 new dorm beds.

“It was clear, after we did the science building, that the next project would have to be those beds,” Spiegelman said.

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez said he is glad the issue of students living off-campus is being addressed, even if it means a taller building.

“It is big, but we wanted Northeastern University to be bold,” he said.

The height is not the only unusual aspect of this project: NU is not paying for the building, and it will not manage it. The university is leasing the land at 10 Burke St. to the Texas-based development company American Campus Community (ACC), which will build and manage the residence for a fixed term. The building will be privately owned and managed, but will operate like a NU residence. Students will be expected to follow university rules, and there will be resident assistants in the building.

“This is one of the first privatized partnerships happening in Boston,” said Jason Wills, the senior vice president of development for American Campus Communities.

The new student apartments will also charge NU prices. While neither ACC nor NU named a specific price range, Wills said the rent would be consistent with NU’s student housing prices, between $6,000 and $12,000 per year.

Bruce Bickerstaff, chairman of the Roxbury Trust Fund and a member of the NU task force, said, “Northeastern University housing is understood to be more expensive than in the community.”

Sanchez is skeptical that simply offering on-campus housing will be a draw for students renting cheaper apartments in Roxbury and Mission Hill.

“It’s such a good deal, they can’t say no,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez also referenced the West Village student housing development as a concerning precedent, saying NU increased enrollment to fill the residence.

Spiegelman countered, saying, “There are no plans to increase enrollment.”

Bickerstaff reiterated the need to draw students out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“You can always bring more students in. But are we going to see some de-pressurization outside the hallowed halls of Northeastern?” he asked.

“Most students, given the option to live on campus, want to be on campus,” said the BRA’s Autler.

NU student body president Eric Tyler echoed him, saying “Students want to be on campus. The demand is there.”

The comment period for the project ended March 1.

[Peter Shanley contributed to this article.]

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