UMass-Boston plans dorms, more traditional campus

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

The University of Massachusetts at Boston plans to dramatically overhaul its crumbling campus by adding academic buildings and reviving a controversial proposal to build the school's first dormitories, part of a large-scale campaign to transform the Columbia Point college into a waterfront showcase.

The preliminary, 25-year plan, which will be presented to the UMass Board of Trustees this morning, would redesign the layout to capitalize on its Dorchester Bay location and replace the university's vast brick plazas with a series of grassy quads linked by pedestrian walkways.

In the first phase of the blueprint, university officials are proposing to spend $750 million over the next decade to build three academic buildings along a central walkway bisecting the campus, two dormitories for 1,000 students, and a 1,000-space above-ground parking garage.

The dormitory proposal, which has drawn surprising support from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, promises to again raise the ire of Savin Hill and Columbia Point residents who have consistently opposed similar proposals in the past.

University officials said the overhaul would reorient the campus to create a close-knit and collegial atmosphere more akin to a traditional liberal arts college than an urban commuter school.

"It will change the whole culture of the campus," Chancellor J. Keith Motley said in a meeting this week with the Globe in which he detailed the school's plans. "It will create a much more open and vibrant community."

The plan does not require city approval, but some state agencies will need to sign off. The university would rely on state funding and accelerated private fund-raising to finance the project and hopes to boost revenue by increasing enrollment over the next two years to about 15,000, an increase of 1,500 students. University officials have not determined the cost of living in the dorms, but say the increased revenues would offset the cost of construction.

The announcement of the plan, developed over the past two years, represents Motley's first major move since becoming chancellor this summer.

The 175-acre campus, which consists mostly of aging structures that date to the early 1970s, has suffered from years of neglect and desperately requires upgrades. Labs are leaky and moldy, infrastructure has deteriorated, and some buildings are not up to code, university officials said. The plans call for leveling the rundown science building and a crumbling parking garage, closed last year when it was deemed structurally unsound.

"We need to bring [the college] forward to the 21st century," said Ellen O'Connor, vice chancellor of administration and finance at UMass-Boston.

The dorms would be built near the Harbor Point Apartments, where more than 3,000 people live. Despite opposition in the past, university officials said the current proposal, which would provide housing for half as many students as earlier plans, has received a more favorable reception from city officials and neighbors.

Menino, who opposed the university's plans in 2003 to build dorms for 2,000 students, said he now supports the idea because university officials have done a better job of soliciting neighborhood opinion and adapting their plans accordingly.

"Getting kids back on campus makes a lot of sense," Menino said by phone yesterday. He said he also supported the university's plan as a whole, though he hoped that university officials present the plan to city officials and neighborhood groups for their opinions.

Overall, "the concept is a good one," Menino said. "Right now it looks like a fortress over there."

But City Council President Maureen Feeney said she and many neighbors remain skeptical about dormitories.

"We all have that concern that once one dorm is built, more will follow," she said.

On the broader plan, Feeney said she supports efforts to replace outdated facilities and quipped that it "will be a good day for Dorchester when MCI-UMass disappears."

"UMass-Boston students and faculty deserve better than what they have," she said.

Joe Chaisson, a longtime member of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, criticized the university for proposing the dormitories, which he said would disturb family-oriented neighborhoods within walking distance of UMass-Boston.

"They have an agreement with the community that it would be a commuter college and that there would be no dorms," he said. "They will turn family restaurants into college bars."

Some students also oppose dorms for the campus.

Jason Pramas, a doctoral student in public policy who served on a master plan committee, said dormitories signaled a departure from the school's traditional mission of serving working-class, minority, and immigrant students.

"They want white, middle-class students whose families can afford to pay more," Pramas said. "I and a lot of others think that will hurt the school's urban mission."

University officials hope that a revamped campus will help the school raise its profile, attract faculty, and appeal to students, particularly recent high school graduates, who prefer to live on a college campus.

UMass-Boston has traditionally drawn older students, but has recently seen an increase in applications from traditional-age students. In surveys, students who were accepted but did not choose to attend UMass-Boston cited a lack of on-campus housing and the poor condition of the campus as primary reasons for going elsewhere.

"Housing at some point is going to have to happen on our campus," Motley said.

Alex Kulenovic, a UMass-Boston student trustee, said the plan would help create a more active and connected student body.

"It's good to have more students having a traditional college experience," he said. "At the moment, a lot of people march through campus and really don't stick around a lot."

The initial 10-year phase of the project also calls for new tennis and soccer fields, a new track, and reconfiguring the campus's road network, which university officials likened to a speedway. Later phases include more academic buildings.

UMass-Boston is in line to receive $125 million for new academic buildings and repairs in Governor Deval Patrick's proposal to allocate $750 million over the next five years for capital improvements for the state's public colleges. That proposal is pending in the Legislature.

Additionally, the five-campus UMass system approved in September a $2.9 billion budget for capital improvements, the largest allocation in university history, over the next five years. UMass-Boston would receive $381 million of that, although the money depends on state funding.

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