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Big plan on campus

First of two parts

PARTICIPANTS IN a sweeping seminar on town-gown relations sponsored by the Boston Foundation in 2003 predicted that colleges and universities would take up the mantle of leadership lost by many local corporations after a spate of mergers. Rancor over past institutional expansion would fade. Academics would work for social progress in the neighborhoods, while activists embraced the colleges as engines of economic development. At hand was nothing less than "twin paradigm shifts," as former Northeastern University president Richard Freeland put it.

Not so fast.

Disquiet is back in almost every neighborhood of Boston with a nearby campus or affiliated medical center. Last month, opponents of Boston University Medical Center's proposed bio-defense laboratory on Albany Street told federal health officials they wanted no part of a research facility, no matter how secure, that brings lethal agents into a low-income neighborhood. On Beacon Hill, neighbors who oppose Suffolk University's proposal for a 550-student dormitory on Somerset Street are busy strategizing ways to block the development. Across town in Allston and Brighton, neighbors along Western Avenue say they preferred living hard by industrial buildings than the vacant ones created when Harvard University bought the properties and cleared out many tenants.

With almost 140,000 students at 36 colleges, Boston tops the nation in per-capita enrollment, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. But with roughly 26,000 students living in the neighborhoods instead of dorms or the suburbs, the aggravation index in some areas is also sky-high. Neighborhoods and universities need to turn Freeland's vision into reality. The eight major research universities spend about $3.9 billion annually on payroll, purchasing, and construction. Those noisy students exercise roughly $850 million in annual spending power. Boston won't benefit from a resurgence of town-gown conflicts.

Harvard should take the lead. Much bitterness remains over the university's decision in the 1990s to purchase 52 acres in Allston covertly through proxies. Harvard subsequently engaged neighborhood groups, especially along portions of Western Avenue closest to its Cambridge campus, where it intends to build a 500,000-square-foot complex to house a stem-cell research institute. This engagement resulted in an unprecedented land-use plan showing Harvard's immediate and future space needs. But the plans are hazier the farther west one travels into the campus of the future. Bob VanMeter, head of the nonprofit Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, says that 307,000 square feet of industrial space now owned by Harvard sits vacant west of North Harvard Street. University officials acknowledge the problem and say they are now prepared to give businesses leases ranging in length from five to 10 years. Harvard could also make a powerful statement by integrating its plans to build housing for graduate students with affordable homes for neighbors similar to Northeastern's successful Davenport Commons in Roxbury.

The pressure on universities to attract talented out-of-state students and the stresses placed on neighborhoods by such recruitment are playing out on the north slope of Beacon Hill. Suffolk University, traditionally a commuter school, has boosted its undergraduate enrollment from 2,705 full-time students in 2001 to 4,394 today. Neighbors complain, with cause, that such growth greatly outpaced Suffolk's projected enrollment from an earlier master plan. Suffolk needs to create a new, credible 10-year master plan to restore its reputation on Beacon Hill.

Building dorms to alleviate housing pressures in the neighborhood is a compelling policy, strongly encouraged by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. But it could backfire if it is used only to mask growing enrollment.

Relations between Northeastern University and City Hall nearly collapsed in 2004 after a celebratory Super Bowl riot that ended in the death of a visiting student who was run down by a drunk driver. With a powerful prod from City Hall, Northeastern has embarked on a five-year plan to move 900 students out of private apartments leased by the university in the Fenway area and into new dorms on campus. But the conflict over leases has popped up in Cleveland Circle, where Boston College will be tying up more than 100 apartments for graduate student housing for the next six years. While problems move, they don't get solved.

One possible solution is to encourage private developers to build and operate student housing in areas where there might be minimal pressure on traditional neighborhoods. Dallas-based Phoenix Property Company is close to buying a portion of the Huntington Avenue YMCA, where it hopes to house as many as 1,200 students from various colleges , according to Y spokeswoman Kelley Rice. The model is popular in the Midwest, where developers rent beds to students in suites with amenities that rent for about 15 percent more than traditional dorms.

Such a model might work at Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, where Berklee College of Music is now looking to house students. Suffolk is also signaling its interest in expanding into less developed areas of Downtown Crossing and the Ladder District.

While private developers could ease the student housing squeeze, they must first prove they can control student behavior. It takes careful coordination between campus police and Boston police now to keep a lid on drinking and carousing. If poorly managed, a student village could quickly become a house of horrors, and town-gown relations could really hit the skids.

Next: What universities can do to create a better Boston.

Boston's college students

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