UMass Boston expansion forces neighbors to rethink plan for area

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 18, 2009

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For nearly two years, city planners and community leaders brainstormed, huddled with developers, and drew up blueprints for a new Columbia Point. They imagined a bustling cluster of shops and restaurants, homes and offices, all just a short walk to the water and the JFK train station.

But now a centerpiece of that ambitious concept, the 20-acre Bayside Exposition Center property, has been taken off the table, with the University of Massachusetts Boston poised to purchase the attractive parcel for a sweeping development plan of its own.

The university’s plans to expand its presence on the Dorchester peninsula caught many elected officials and neighbors off guard, and some said it will force them to rethink their strategy for the area. A few months after completing a report outlining a vision for a “24-hour-a-day neighborhood,’’ planners and residents will have to head back to the drawing board.

“This completely changes the terms of what’s going to happen over there,’’ said state Representative Martin Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat. “It’s a big shift, and obviously changes things dramatically.’’

University officials announced Wednesday that they had reached an agreement to acquire the languishing expo center, which it will use for parking, classrooms, and offices during a large-scale renovation of its Morrissey Boulevard campus. In the first stage of its expansion, the university plans to build a $152 million science complex and another academic building.

“We see it as a tremendous opportunity,’’ said Ellen O’Connor, vice chancellor for administration and finance at the university. “Until these buildings get built, we will really be maxed out on space.’’

O’Connor said the university does not plan to build dormitories on the property.

UMass also said, in a statement released Wednesday, that the acquisition will be paid for with bond funding and would have little impact on tuition rates.

Some members of a city-appointed panel studying ways to enliven the area said the purchase marked a setback.

“In many ways, we’ll have to start all over again,’’ said Christopher Hart, a member of the task force. “This was a major part of the overall plan.’’

Officials and residents had eyed the Bayside property as part of a 27-acre mixed-use development featuring hundreds of residences, stores, and offices that would give the area a badly needed jolt of energy.

But the developer, Corcoran Jennison Co., lost control of the property this spring, and another real estate firm bought the land for $11 million at a foreclosure auction in May. The university did not disclose the price of its deal.

Joseph E. Corcoran, chairman of Corcoran Jennison Cos., said he was pleased UMass is buying the property. Pointing out that his company still owns 15 acres near the expo center, he said he would welcome a chance to work with the university on a joint venture some day.

“I’m all in favor of that,’’ he said. “We encouraged them to buy the property, and I have a feeling they want to do something there that is not just good for the university, but for the community.’’

Market studies have shown a pent-up demand for restaurants and shops in the area, he said.

Councilor Maureen E. Feeney praised the purchase as “an amazing opportunity for the university’’ and said the project slated for the property had fallen by the wayside well before the UMass acquisition.

“The dynamic changed when Corcoran lost the property,’’ she said. “I think we would all love some version of that development, but it was on hold, anyhow.’’

Feeney said the university might eventually be willing to lease or sell some of its property for private use to create a revitalized commercial strip along Mount Vernon Street.

A spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning and economic development agency, said it is too early to tell how the university’s plans will mesh with existing plans for the area.

University officials said they had not decided on long-range plans for the property, but said it would provide much-needed elbow room as they embark on the campus overhaul. Enrollment has climbed 25 percent in the past few years to 15,000 students, a rise officials expect to continue.

But officials concluded the outdated campus was dimming the university’s potential.

“Our facilities didn’t match up to the quality of our students and faculty,’’ O’Connor said. “It was handicapping us, and doing something about it became a top priority.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at