Plans for an 810-bed Northeastern University dorm currently under city review are facing a new round of criticism, now from student and progressive activists who argue the project would further gentrification in a neighborhood steeped in rising rents and resident displacement.
The proposal, initially filed before the Boston Planning & Development Agency in late 2019, calls for a 25-story, 468,5000-square-foot mixed-use building at 840 Columbus Ave.
University representatives, in documents filed with the BPDA, say the first five stories would be dedicated to classrooms, makerspace areas, and office space, while the rest of the building would contain dorms with amenities such as a fitness center, social lounge, “Academic Success Center,” and a bike and laundry room.
But student activists and other local advocates are calling on the university to halt its plans out of concerns over the impact new development could have on the neighborhood.
On Sunday, several groups rallied outside the Ruggles MBTA station in an attempt to build support for the cause, including members of the the Boston Socialist Alternative, NU Young Democratic Socialists of America, and NU for the Common Good, organizers said.
“The luxury dorm is a project that will raise the cost of housing in Roxbury and contribute to the homelessness crisis in Boston,” Liam Easton-Calabria, an ER tech and Socialist Alternative organizer, said in a statement. “Massive schools like Northeastern are withholding so much funding because they are labelled as non-profits. We can’t afford to let them further gentrify our communities. We deserve to have social housing instead of luxury dorms, but we need to get organized and we need to fight to make this happen, that’s why I’m supporting this campaign.”
In a press release announcing the rally, organizers said students at local colleges and universities “should not be expected to pay exorbitant prices for dorms when they are required to live on campus.”
“Working people should not have to worry about housing during a global pandemic,” the release continued. “We have built this campaign to fight back against Northeastern’s gentrification and fight for social housing for students and the community.”
Northeastern, however, says the project — which it is developing with American Campus Communities, Inc. — will help meet the city’s goals of freeing up some of its rental housing market by creating 18,500 new beds for local students by 2030.
A draft Project Impact Report filed in February indicates the new development, if built, would result in 175 net new student beds for Northeastern. Among the project benefits the report touted was the “return of several properties to the Fenway neighborhood housing market and to the city real estate tax roll because approximately 635 of the beds in the Project will replace existing student housing.”
“The proposed residence hall at 840 Columbus Ave. is being built at the request of the city in order to provide more on-campus housing for students,” Northeastern told Boston.com in a statement responding to Sunday’s rally. “It will be constructed on a parking lot the university has owned for 24 years; therefore, it does not represent ‘expansion’ into Roxbury. In creating more opportunities for students to live on campus, this development will actually reduce gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods.”
The project would also set aside 18,000 square feet of ground floor space for a community economic development initiative geared to programs in several categories: educational access, small business support, jobs and workforce development, and “building capacity for existing community organizations that address economic development,” the draft report says.
Still, Northeastern is facing more opposition against the project than just those who turned out for Sunday’s rally.
The university is also facing a lawsuit over whether it has the right to develop the parcel.
The ongoing civil case in Suffolk Superior Court was filed in December by Columbia Plaza Associates, a group of Black business owners who say they own development rights to the site, as awarded by the Boston Redevelopment Authority through the city’s parcel-to-parcel linkage program over 30 years ago, The Bay State Banner reported.
“They have the right to determine how the land is developed,” Henry Owens, an attorney representing CPA, told the newspaper at the time. “They have the right to participate as a joint venture in the development.”
A Northeastern spokesperson told The Huntington News, Northeastern’s student newspaper, in January the claims have “no merit and we are confident they will be dismissed.”
“The current complaint by Columbia Plaza Associates seeks to revisit issues that were fully litigated years ago, resulting in a series of court rulings and a final judgment in Northeastern’s favor, all of which were upheld on appeal,” the spokesperson said.
Also apparently opposed to Northeastern’s plans is acting Mayor Kim Janey.
Janey, the Roxbury city councilor who became the city’s chief executive last month after Marty Walsh resigned to serve as U.S. secretary of labor, wrote to the BPDA in December 2019 voicing “deep concerns” with the project.
“Throughout Northeastern’s expansion into its surrounding communities it has proven to be a disruptive force in the neighborhood,” Janey wrote. “The construction of facilities such as the $225 million Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and Lightview Tower has expanded Northeastern’s footprint into the Lower Roxbury area and pushed out long-standing businesses and life-long residents. The new development stands to be no different and will certainly exacerbate the housing shortage and availability crisis to which Northeastern has heavily contributed.”
Organizers of Sunday’s rally said they are seeking to build support among the community and among students with a plan to mobilize groups for a public meeting on the project next month.
Carey Howard, of the Socialist Alternative, told Boston.com Monday they also intend to gather signatures for a petition to be delivered to university and potentially city leadership.
“We want to make sure it’s very, very clear that students and members of the Roxbury community do not support this luxury dorm,” Howard said.