Alliance stands up to NU

Students, neighbors battling expansion

Northeastern University law school students Dan Pond (right) and Charlie Noss (top right) standing with St. Botolph Terrace Apartments residents (clockwise from front left) Santa Melendez, Christopher Roberson, Rosalind Dawson, and Alice James. Northeastern University law school students Dan Pond (right) and Charlie Noss (top right) standing with St. Botolph Terrace Apartments residents (clockwise from front left) Santa Melendez, Christopher Roberson, Rosalind Dawson, and Alice James. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ted Siefer
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2008

Roxbury residents have gained an unlikely ally in their fight against Northeastern University's expansion into their neighborhood: Northeastern students.

"We live next to a community that has a history of getting kicked around by Northeastern," says Timbah Bell, a junior from Gloucester. Bell was among the nearly 100 people at a campus forum last month on Roxbury relations, strained recently by a 1,200-student dorm project and the school's purchase of a low-income apartment building.

For a student body that has attracted bad publicity in recent years for postgame rioting and wild parties, such activism and community engagement may seem out of character. But the law school students who organized the forum hope it's just the beginning of a campaign that will make students more aware of the university's impact on the distressed neighborhoods around it.

The students entered the fray after Northeastern bought a 52-unit, rent-subsidized building on Massachusetts Avenue, the St. Botolph Terrace Apartments. The purchase was condemned by city councilors and other elected officials at a hearing in November, and in a subsequent resolution, the council urged the university to give up the building.

According to an agreement with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, signed in July but not disclosed until October, Northeastern can convert the units to market-rate or another use after 2023. Tenants and their supporters fear that cuts in federal funding for Section 8, which provides rent vouchers for low-income households, could allow the school to convert the building much sooner.

Among those now speaking out against Northeastern is state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat who had been a key backer of the school's plan to build a 22-story dorm in Lower Roxbury, despite resistance from large segments of the community. Now under construction at the intersection of Ruggles and Tremont streets, the pair of towers is fast becoming the most prominent feature of the skyline in the area.

"I was in a different place with this a year ago," says Wilkerson, who participated in the student forum and the council hearing. "I now think [Northeastern] has exhausted the good will that it was extended."

In addition to decrying the purchase of St. Botolph Terrace, Wilkerson accuses Northeastern of failing to honor commitments to hire a significant number of minority firms for the dorm project and to furnish a generous benefits package to the community.

Northeastern officials maintain that the benefits deal, signed months after construction began, does make significant contributions, including tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for residents of nearby housing projects. Moreover, they point out, minority hiring has improved considerably since work on the project began.

As for St. Botolph Terrace, Jeffrey Doggett, Northeastern's director of government relations, testified at the City Council hearing that tenants would not be removed before 2023, and that the school may be open to "extending affordability" beyond that point.

In addition to St. Botolph Terrace, there are eight other Section 8-subsidized buildings near the campus, including the 400-unit Symphony Plaza, at a corner of Huntington and Massachusetts avenues, and the 346-unit Roxse Homes complex in Lower Roxbury.

Since the 1990s, the Northeastern campus has steadily spread eastward across Columbus Avenue into the Greater Roxbury Development Area, a zoning district drawn up to spur neighborhood job creation and investment. Northeastern is now the area's largest single property owner, and it has built dorms, administrative offices and its police headquarters, encountering resistance nearly every step of the way.

The St. Botolph Terrace tenants and their supporters want Northeastern to sell the building to an agreed-upon third party or to allow the tenants to buy the building through a co-op, as is the case at other Section 8 buildings in the area.

Since the purchase was finalized in November for $10.4 million, meetings between Northeastern officials and tenants have focused largely on maintenance issues, such as faulty heating, not the fate of the building, says tenant Rosalind Dawson.

"We've felt pushed around and powerless in all this," Dawson says.

At the same time, Dawson says, she is encouraged by the response from the students. "They also suffer from a lack of cooperation from Northeastern," she says. "They don't get enough funding and have to seek housing where they can get it."

For law student Kate Krepel, the issue comes down to the responsibility of the students who pay tuition to the institution.

"It's important to hold Northeastern accountable for its actions," she says. "It has all the power to do what it likes unless students speak up."

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