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Lawrence Harmon

UMass sees gold through expo site dust

THE GHOSTS of RV, flower, and dog shows past haunt the barren Bayside Exposition Center in Dorchester. The 275,000-square-foot trade show crypt might pass for the creepiest place in town if not for the company of Keith Motley, the eternally upbeat chancellor of UMass Boston.

“Every time I go in here I get excited,’’ said Motley. “We can have it all right here.’’

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When UMass Boston bought the property last year, college officials made noise about retrofitting some of the expo spaces for classroom use. Motley clings to that belief. But the university’s architecture and planning consultants want no part of it. They know that no part of the bulky building is worth saving from the scrap heap. The real issue is what should be developed in its stead.

UMass Boston has been soliciting the input of neighbors, community groups, and public officials - almost to a fault. Since May, the university has hosted two “charrettes’’ - a fancy term for brainstorming sessions - and many smaller meetings on the future of the site. Dorchester residents expressed support for a mixed use of stores, restaurants, and residences at Bayside similar to a plan put forth by developer Corcoran Jennison before it defaulted on a loan for the property a few years ago.

UMass Boston appears earnest about being “inclusive of the concerns of the surrounding communities.’’ But it didn’t pay $18.7 million for the 20-acre site so that Dorchester residents could have magical shopping experiences similar to the ones enjoyed by their wealthier cousins at the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham. And if any research university in this town deserves to expand, it is UMass Boston - a place with a public mission and a reasonable $11,000 price tag for tuition and fees.

UMass Boston should play to its strengths when developing the site. And by doing so, it will improve the lives of residents in Boston and beyond. The expo site, for example, would be an ideal home for a new College of Nursing and Health Sciences. The campus’s nursing program ranks in the top 7 percent for nursing schools and colleges nationwide. It is the largest producer of trained nurses in the state. And its PhD program positions UMass Boston as a vital source for future nursing professors.

Despite this record, UMass Boston officials didn’t find space for the nursing program in the new integrated sciences complex now under construction on campus. Nursing will need a home. And the expo site would be ideal.

The expo site would be an ideal home for a new College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

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That still leaves plenty of room for other academic uses and residential development. The charrette crowd favored congregate housing for the elderly, faculty apartments, and alumni housing. The construction of dormitory space for undergrads received a poor reception at community meetings. But dorms might be just what the site needs to enliven the barren stretch along nearby Mount Vernon Street.

Despite its reputation for hosting older students who juggle college with careers and family, more than half of the roughly 12,000 UMass Boston undergrads are of traditional college age - 22 or younger. And that number is sure to grow as more middle class families get squeezed by the atrocious costs of private universities. Currently, about 1,200 UMass students live in private housing complexes nearby. The university has a long-range plan to build dorm space for about 2,000 students on the northern edge of the current campus. But the goal at UMass Boston should be the same as for every other college in the city - house as many of its undergrads as possible on campus.

Residents in most neighborhoods beg colleges to build dorms. But Dorchester residents remain oddly suspicious of student housing. That attitude is likely to change as more college kids with a penchant for late-night partying move into nearby Dorchester neighborhoods and drive up rents beyond the means of many families. And when such attitudes do change, UMass Boston needs to be ready with dorm plans for the expo site.

It’s hard to get a sense of the site’s full potential while stumbling around in half-light past abandoned booths advertising “loaded cheezy fries.’’ But the expo center property does have the potential to transform the urban campus. And what’s good for UMass Boston should be good for the city.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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