SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY officials have dusted themselves off after being driven from Somerset Street on the edge of Beacon Hill, where they had hoped to site a 22-story dormitory. Now the university is concentrating on the Downtown Crossing/Ladder District, where a Suffolk dorm could serve both the interests of the university and revive a stale area of the city.
Everything that Beacon Hill neighbors deplored about the Somerset Street proposal -- building size, location, student density -- is addressed for the better in the new proposal. The proposed dorm at 10 West St. would utilize an existing eight -story building and accommodate 270 students, about half the number planned on Beacon Hill. And unlike Beacon Hill, there is a dearth of night activity in Downtown Crossing. Students would make the area both livelier and safer.
Mayor Menino and the Boston Redevelopment Authority have given their blessing to the West Street dorm proposal. But they had also backed Suffolk's earlier plan on Beacon Hill. When opposition intensified, however, city officials backed away, leaving the university in the lurch. Some opposition to the latest project already has been heard from nearby residents who worry that Downtown Crossing could become too much of a student center. The Menino administration needs to remain stalwart this time. Its own sound policy, after all, encourages universities to house their own students as a means to lessen pressures on rents and housing costs in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Suffolk University now houses just 19 percent of its 4,500 undergraduates. In a college town like Boston, a school can't maintain its competitive edge if it can't do a better job than that at providing housing. It's the responsibility of the university to ensure that its students behave in such a way that they are welcome in the neighborhood. Suffolk must also choose wisely when leasing the commercial spaces on the ground floor of the proposed dorm. But it is the responsibility of City Hall to see that Suffolk is given a fair chance to gain the permits necessary to open the dorm in September.
Unlike most universities that favor contiguous expansion, Suffolk sees opportunities in various parts of the city that fall under the general rubric of downtown, including Government Center and North Station. What Emerson College did during the last decade to revive downtown areas near the old Combat Zone on lower Washington Street, Suffolk could do for other underdeveloped or rundown sections of the city.
The future of Downtown Crossing is often debated in Boston's planning circles. Topics range from how to attract the right commercial mix to the best way to configure the pedestrian mall along Washington Street. It's still talk. A Suffolk dorm is real and ready.