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Northeastern maps its plans for Columbus Avenue and Roxbury

Posted by Your Town  November 5, 2013 02:45 PM

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The Columbus lot near Ruggles Station, slated for redevelopment; photo credit is Matt Greene, the Huntington News.

By Jill Bongiorni, Globe Correspondent

Northeastern University plans to transform its presence on Columbus Avenue with the construction of a new science and engineering building and the rebuilding of the city-owned William E. Carter Playground. 

Blueprints of the proposed Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering building (ISEB) include a walkway over the railroad tracks that will increase accessibility to Northeastern’s core campus and help to connect the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Fenway. 

The university also plans to implement programs that would enable more Roxbury students to attend Northeastern, and to increase the hiring of local residents and businesses.

“This is going to open up the face of Northeastern towards our neighbors in Roxbury,” said John Tobin, Northeastern’s vice president of city and community affairs.

Plans for the ISEB, Carter Playground construction and community programs are outlined in Northeastern’s Institutional Master Plan, which was set to be presented to the Boston Redevelopment Authority on Oct. 15. 

Following conversations with the BRA, the university withdrew the master plan from the meeting’s agenda. Jim Chiavelli, Northeastern’s director of solutions planning, said the university currently is working with neighbors and elected officials to finalize its plan, addressing mainly housing concerns, before resubmitting it to the BRA. He said the university hopes to present it on Nov. 14.

Gerald Autler, senior project manager at the BRA, said that generally, reactions to the proposed Columbus Avenue projects have been positive, partially because the university will be filling in underutilized parcels on campus, rather than expanding further into the neighborhood.

“I think that [Columbus Avenue] was seen as kind of a ragged edge to the campus,” said Autler, who has been working with Northeastern for about eight years. “This is going to dramatically transform that stretch of Columbus Ave.”

Dates for breaking ground at Carter Playground, a city-owned park and playground with basketball and tennis courts and baseball and football fields, have not been set. Renovations include a makeover and expansion of the grounds and multipurpose fields. Northeastern is donating its Camden Lot, appraised at $8.9 million, for expansion of the fields. Tobin said the project will cost the university around $15 million, and the park will remain city-owned.

Jenelle Dorrance, a Roxbury resident, said the renovations are badly needed. “It would benefit the kids. A lot of times, this field is dirty and not properly taken care of,” she said, as her son practiced with the Pop Warner Titans on the field.

Because construction will take the field offline for a “the better part of a year” Tobin said, the city will make arrangements for users of the park.

Autler said there is a tension in Roxbury between a recognition that Northeastern has a positive impact on the area, and concerns about the university expanding its footprint further. 

The ISEB does not require new land, as it will be built on Northeastern’s surface parking lot at 795 Columbus Ave. Northeastern’s Columbus parking garage is currently underutilized and will provide parking spots for displaced vehicles. The ISEB will be the first project undertaken in the university’s master plan, with construction expected to begin before the end of 2013. The project is estimated to cost up to $175 million.

Autler said the city supports improving Northeastern’s connection to the community.

“That’s something that we’re always looking to do -- make sure we enhance connectivity, rather than diminish it. This was an opportunity to really try to overcome that barrier,” Autler said, referring to plans for a walkway over the railroad tracks that run parallel to Columbus Avenue.

Northeastern also is pledging to increase its purchasing and contracting relationships with small businesses and women- and minority-owned ventures, and to hire more neighborhood residents and provide employment training, education programs and job fairs for community members.  In addition, the university would work with the community to sponsor college-readiness events and to develop programs that encourage students from Roxbury Community College and Bunker Hill Community College to transfer to Northeastern.

Northeastern would expand its need-based financial aid to Boston Public School graduates from the area.

“We want community benefits, moving forward, that are tactful and meaningful and will help change and shape the lives of people who don’t go to the university, or whose parents don’t work here,” Tobin said. 

Northeastern has contracted Next Street, a merchant bank that encourages the growth of small businesses by facilitating connections with larger institutions, to assess its purchasing practices and find new opportunities for community involvement.

The $1.6 billion master plan encompasses a dozen on-campus building projects, including the addition of 1,800 on-campus beds. Some local residents said they don’t mind the addition of academic buildings in their community.

"It would be a good outlook for younger kids,” Dorrance said. “There’d be more academic buildings around, and maybe it would inspire kids to want to go to college and just to do well in life.”

Another resident, David Curry, said he also sees Northeastern’s expansion as positive. “I actually enjoy seeing new faces, a breath of fresh air, a new genre of people,” said the 30-year-old MBTA bus driver, who has lived in Roxbury his whole life.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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