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Smart growth at Tufts

TUFTS UNIVERSITY has decided to grow in a way that befits its status as a successful undergraduate college and research institution set back a bit from the contentious Boston-Cambridge educational axis. Its initial success in enlisting students, faculty, and the leadership of Somerville and Medford in the planning process bodes well for steady improvement in its already impressive campus.

Since 1852, the university has been centered on Walnut Hill, divided between Medford and Somerville. Tufts slowly grew down the hill, but its comparatively low enrollment, about 7,100 students on the main campus, has kept relations with the two cities -- though sometimes strained -- less confrontational than the town-gown strife in Boston and Cambridge. Still, Michael J. McGlynn, the veteran Medford mayor, said this week that "Seventeen years ago I remember sending the arrest wagon up there" to deal with unruly students living off-campus.

McGlynn has seen a steady improvement since then, quickened by the appointment of MIT Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow as president in 2001. Bacow this year signed agreements with McGlynn and Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville that for the first time commit the university to payments in lieu of taxes ($1.25 million to each city over 10 years). "The relationship has never been better," Curtatone said this week.

Last year, the university hired the Boston architectural firm William Rawn Associates, known for its skill at campus projects, to do a masterplan for the Walnut Hill environs. Bacow and Rawn made sure the students, faculty, and the two mayors were included in discussion of preliminary plans for new buildings.

Rawn sees his task as enhancing the distinctive Tufts landscape of 19th-century buildings at the top of the hill and bringing that level of quality to all sections of the campus. Early indications are positive. Construction will begin next spring on a 150-student dormitory that will be split in two to create a footpath up Walnut Hill. Paths up, down, and around the hill form a unifying grid on campus.

Across the street from the twin dormitories, Rawn is designing a music building that will complement the Victorian homes on Professors Row. The new buildings will form another of the small rendezvous spots that abound on campus. Rawn will face another challenge when the firm designs a new laboratory building, far bigger than the other two, that will nestle against another section of the Walnut hillside.

Bacow and Rawn foresee a time when the university will grow further, even using air rights over a nearby MBTA commuter line. Good relations with the two communities augur well for future building projects.

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