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Is Framingham becoming a college town?

Framingham State University’s growth is impacting the community

Jillian Donham headed inside O’Connell’s Pub. As the student population grows at Framingham State, more activity can be seen on campus and around town.

Jackie Ricciardi for The Boston Globe

Jillian Donham headed inside O’Connell’s Pub. As the student population grows at Framingham State, more activity can be seen on campus and around town.

On a crisp fall day high above the constant bustle of Route 9, Framingham State University’s hilly campus teems with activity. Pedestrian traffic jams arise at the entrance to a centrally located academic building, as underclassmen fight against a swarm attempting to enter the building, rushing through the double doors to speed-walk to class.

Over the past five years, the university has seen nearly a 20 percent increase in the number of undergraduates. This fall there were 4,576 undergraduates and 1,930 graduate students.

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The number of students living on the campus shot up by more than 25 percent, to 1,941, as the school added more than 400 beds with the opening of the $48 million North Hall dormitory last year.

“We are the fastest growing public university over the last two years,” said Framingham State’s president, Timothy J. Flanagan. 

But students are not the only ones impacted by the growing campus. The town has seen increased economic activity as local restaurants and stores say a fair chunk of their business comes from college students.

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“They offer an awful lot to our community,” said Selectman Dennis Giombetti, who lives near the university’s State Street campus in Framingham Centre. “Their growth expands the qualities they provide to the community.”

Framingham is on track to continue its growth as a college town, with university officials looking at plans to construct another dorm by 2015 that could add 100 beds.

Also, Massachusetts Bay Community College announced in October that it plans to construct a permanent location in downtown Framingham that would accommodate an enrollment of 4,000 students, after consolidating satellite campuses on Flagg Drive in Framingham and Eliot Street in Ashland. The community college’s main campus in Wellesley Hills would be unaffected, school officials said at the time.

“MassBay students include older students who are continuing their education while working full time, so they would have more disposable income to use in the downtown area,” Giombetti said. “It’s a major boost and game changer for downtown.”

Businesses near the state university campus say they are already seeing sales benefits from the students who live, work, and study locally.

“On Thursday nights, it’s probably about 90 percent college students here,” said Jen Madden, owner of O’Connell’s Pub and Sports Bar, which sits less than a mile from campus. “There’s probably about 150 of them in here then.”

Rick Mullen, manager of Super Discount Liquors, which is just down the hill and across Route 9 from Framingham State, also said his business benefits from the college.

“I’d say about 25 percent of our clientele are in their early 20s,” Mullen said. “In the last 10 years, that’s definitely increased, as the size and popularity of the school increased. It’s a good school, and it’s drawing more students.”

The university has also drawn entrepreneurs to the area. Dimitris Bokas stood outside an empty storefront in the same plaza as Super Liquors, squinting up in the afternoon sunlight at the newly placed sign identifying the renovated space as University Pizza.

Bokas said he will manage the pizzeria when it opens early next month.

“We love the location — just look across the street, you can see the university right there,” he said. “This is both a college and a residential area.”

Framingham State officials said in April that the university saw 12 percent enrollment increases in the past two years, leading to a decision to limit the annual increase in its overall undergraduate enrollment to 2 percent this fall.

“As of last year, the majority of our undergraduates — 52 percent — are now living on campus,” said Flanagan. “The old view of Framingham State University as a commuter school is now firmly in the past.”

As campus enrollment increases, so does the number of students placed in internships in the area. Framingham State spokesman Dan Magazu said the university hired a full-time internship coordinator in 2010, and since then internship placement has swelled.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, 333 students completed internships for credit, and more than 600 students participated in noncredit internships, he said.

Framingham State officials said its students intern at notable Framingham companies, such TJX Cos. and Bose Corp., as well as Natick-based MathWorks Inc. and the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, in addition to several medical facilities.

Additionally, enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs has spiked at the university in the past five years: there are 69 percent more math majors, 37 percent more biology students, and 32 percent more computer science majors, Flanagan said.

“We are in an advantageous geographic location, with all these life sciences and information technology companies right in our backyard,” the university’s president said.

The university also collaborates with local cultural institutions, such as the Danforth Museum of Art, and the Framingham History Center, and began offering English as a second language classes this fall in the historic Jonathan Maynard Building, its newest community education center, just across the Route 9 footbridge from campus and next to the historic village green.

Framingham State also offers professional development for local teachers, seniors, and residents through various lectures, workshops, and source materials through its Lifelong Learning Series, President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and the NASA-supported Christa McAuliffe Center.

“As far as community engagement goes, the campus is thriving,” Magazu said.

However, as the campus population has risen, so has a spate of sexual assaults, alleged drunken-driving crashes, vehicle break-ins, and pedestrian incidents along Route 9.

Last December, Brooke Uttley, a 22-year-old Framingham State student from Haverhill, was driving back to campus in her Honda Civic when she hit a telephone pole at a high rate of speed, according to police reports. The impact killed another student in the car, 20-year-old Ashley M. Donahue of Bridgewater, and left Uttley and three other students injured. Uttley was arraigned in March on motor vehicle homicide and drunken driving charges.

“We are always preaching to students to behave in a safe manner, and to know about the dangers of alcohol,” Magazu said. “We do have students on campus who are 21 years old and legal to drink, and we just hope they do it in responsible way.”

The campus also experienced a tense September after four students reported to campus police that they had been sexually assaulted by acquaintances in dormitories.

Within two weeks, the university banned two students in connection with several of the alleged assaults on campus, where two-thirds of the students are women.

The Middlesex district attorney’s office is investigating the allegations.

University police have also warned students about a man soliciting kisses from females, as well as a peeping Tom who took pictures of a student in her dormitory shower.

The area has also seen multiple car break-ins, with the perpetrators suspected to be Framingham State students, said a Police Department spokesman, Lieutenant Ron Brandolini.

He said that in the past two years, there have been 27 pedestrian accidents on Route 9 between Prospect and Temple streets, a 1.5-mile stretch that encompasses the university. However, Brandolini said it was unknown how many involved students, and Magazu said he had not heard of any serious accidents with links to Framingham State.

“I am not aware of any accidents with serious injuries to students in that area,” Magazu said.

Local business owners said they were not surprised at the pedestrian accidents alongside the busy divided roadway, and worry about their young neighbors living on campus.

Joseph Zhang, who has owned Samba Steak and Sushi House since 2006, said he feels nervous seeing students cross Route 9 late at night.

“I see it happen every weekend — they’re trying to cross the street in the middle of the night on Route 9, with people driving up to 60 miles per hour, and no one can see them,” Zhang said. “When they’re drunk, and walking on the street — I just don’t want something serious to happen.”

Other restaurant owners say they are trying to remedy the situation. Madden said O’Connell’s has started paying for a bus to shuttle customers between the student center and the pub.

“It just keeps going in circles, every 10 minutes from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.,” Madden said, noting that she thought the service would be helpful.

“It’s more or less for safety,” Madden said. “It promotes not drinking and driving.”

Madden said it also provides an alternative for students without cars, who otherwise have to walk to reach her restaurant and get back to the campus, with the shortest path along Route 9.

University officials had no comment on O’Connell’s shuttle, but acknowledged that they are aware of its operation.

The university also began providing free bus transportation this fall to retail plazas like Shoppers World, collaborating with the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, Magazu said.

“We also have Zipcar on campus now,” Magazu said. “We provide a nice group of options for students who don’t have cars to go to local shopping destinations and other areas around town.”

Students attending class on the hilly campus all agreed on one thing: the growth in enrollment has been apparent in class sizes, club memberships, and the activity level in the student center.

Two students in the center’s game room took a break after a heated game of table tennis, passing their paddles to other students waiting to play.

“It’s a lot more crowded on campus, but in a good way,” said Josh Graveline, 22. “It’s much more lively.”

Graveline said that he has seen the on-campus improv comedy group grow in recent years.

“The shows this year are the biggest and most well-attended that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s fantastic and fun to do them.”

Tarcisio Nascimento, 21, also said he liked having more peers on campus.

“When I was a freshman, this room was desolate,” Nascimento said, beckoning to the 10 or so people standing around in the game room. “Now I see people in here all the time. But it’s fun,” he added, cracking a smile. “There are more people to play Ping-Pong and pool with.”

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.
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