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Spotlight Report

Hemmed-in BC sees chance to relieve squeeze

By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 12/14/2003

It was arguably the most electrifying news to hit Boston College in years. Not the arrival of a coveted star professor, or BC's first two Rhodes scholarships ever, or even a national bowl bid. Rather, it was the possibility that the ambitious Chestnut Hill university might be able to buy 28 acres of land, right across the street, from the Archdiocese of Boston.

In deciding to sell the land, the church gave BC a shot at one thing its $964 million endowment couldn't buy: space.

"Every university and college in the city of Boston is facing a land crunch," said Kevin Carleton, assistant vice president of public relations at Boston University, which has worked constantly over the decades to expand its holdings on Commonwealth Avenue.

Though not in a dense urban neighborhood, BC has long been hemmed in: It borders a cemetery, a reservoir, and an expensive residential area. And it is competing in an increasingly competitive academic market where getting ahead -- or not falling behind -- requires adding more and more amenities, from dorms to labs to swimming pools and climbing walls.

For BC, the need for more space has longer-term roots in the university's "fundamental shift from a predominantly commuter school to a largely residential one," according to its institutional master plan.

In a 1998 survey, BC officials found their students were more cramped than those at many rival institutions. Boston College has about 250 gross square feet per student, compared with more than 500 feet per student at Brown University and about 375 square feet per student at Tufts University and BU.

Totally built up on its own land, BC has few options to relieve the squeeze. The school's freshmen have to be bused to the main campus from their dorms on a secondary campus -- the former Newton College of the Sacred Heart -- more than a mile away. When the historic waterworks building on the Chestnut Hill Reservoir recently became available, BC put in a bid to develop faculty housing, but lost to a luxury developer.

That picture changed when the Boston Archdiocese announced earlier this month that it would sell the cardinal's residence and the parcel of land around it to help pay for the clergy sex-abuse settlement. With a comfortable endowment and strong church connections, many observers say, BC is in excellent position to capitalize on the sudden opportunity.

While openly declaring their desire for the archdiocesan land, BC officials stress that they don't have any construction plans for the plot. The most they offer: It could be a field.

"When you solicit input from students there's always been a desire for green space for recreational purposes -- someplace to throw a frisbee," said spokesman Jack Dunn.

Many faculty believe that BC will need to think about new projects if the school wants to stay on the trajectory that's taken it from a commuter school to the fourth most applied-to university in the United States. It has made a strong push in the sciences, hiring top physics faculty and building a $90 million physics building.

Yet these upgrades are still not enough to make BC nationally competitive, said physics department chairman Kevin Bedell, who mentioned a federal grant that BC recently lost to MIT.

"To get to the point where we are really competitive with the best schools [in science] we need more facilities," he said.

Other universities in BC's position have become creative and even wily to procure the land they need to fulfill their goals. Harvard bought much of its land in Allston -- where it plans a new campus -- secretly, through a third party, to avoid price gauging or neighborhood alarm.

BU turned the site of a filled-in canal in the South End into its new BioSquare biomedical research park. Crammed into scattered Back Bay brownstones, Emerson College nearly left Boston altogether, then changed course and started buying cheap buildings in the old Combat Zone and Theater district, helping to transform the neighborhood.

For many top schools, the appetite for space is driven largely by the explosion of the life sciences, which demands a great deal of space for new laboratories and interdisciplinary work.

"Their need to build new and updated lab facilities is very important to attract the faculty and get the money," said Mark Clayton, managing director of New England development at Trammell Crow Co.

At the same time, a university can't afford to lose ground on traditional subjects, said Alan J. Stone, vice president for government, community, and public affairs at Harvard University, emphasizing that he was speaking in general, not specifically about Harvard.

"For example, when I was first at Columbia, biological engineering didn't exist as a field, and five years later it was the engineering major with the most kids," Stone said. "No one wants to eliminate structural engineering, so you need more space."

At the same time, parents and students expect smaller classes and an array of services that didn't exist before.

"When I went to college there were one or two deans, counseling services as we know them didn't exist. Job placement was rudimentary at best," Stone said. "Now schools compete on these things and are expected to have them."

The result, in Boston, has been a building boom. A recent study of eight Boston-area research universities found that in 2000, they spent more than $550 million on construction projects.

Municipalities have also been putting great pressure on local colleges to build dormitories to ease the housing crunch. Boston College, for example, has added 800 new beds in the last four years, in part by building upward, removing the roofs of existing dorms and adding additional stories.

BC is sorely in need of new office space and a new student union -- but plans to create those on its existing land, through a project that was tied up in a legal battle with the city of Newton for years but has finally been given a green light by the courts.

"The reality is that land rarely becomes available," Dunn said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at

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