For the first time in two months, the Boston Planning & Development Agency is poised to approve a major project: converting the former Ames Hotel into a Suffolk University dorm.
At its first-ever remote public hearing, the BPDA board on Thursday will consider whether to allow Suffolk to turn the 114-room hotel building at 1 Court St. into student housing.
The shift to virtual meetings reflects a strange new world for agencies such as the BPDA, which typically holds public hearings in marathon monthly sessions in a crowded City Hall conference room. The project being discussed Thursday also highlights the treacherous financial path facing colleges and universities as they balance already-planned expansions with the potential for huge losses if students don’t return to campus in the fall.
Last year, Suffolk paid $63.5 million to buy the Ames, which it then closed. The school wants to turn the historic structure, built in the early 1890s as an office building, into a 300-bed dorm. At the time, university officials said conversion would add much-needed student housing near the school’s Beacon Hill campus much faster and cheaper than building from scratch would. They were aiming to open the dorm in September.
They still are.
John Nucci, Suffolk’s senior vice president for external affairs, said Wednesday that given how little renovation the building will need to be repurposed for students, it could easily be open when — and if — they return in September.
“That’s the whole thing about this project," he said. "It’s basically switching out the furniture. Our plan is to be open with students in the fall.”
That, of course, depends on public health officials’ decisions about whether in-person classes will be allowed this fall. On Tuesday, the California State University system announced it will go mostly online next semester, the same day that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told Congress he thought it was unlikely a vaccine would be ready in time for students to return to campus this fall.
Most Boston-area schools, including Suffolk, say they’re still planning to welcome students back to campus in September, however. Some, such as Northeastern University, have raised the prospect of housing them in apartments or hotels for better social distancing. That could work at the Ames, with its rooms already designed for single occupancy, Suffolk president Marisa Kelly said in a recent interview.
Getting the building into service this fall could help with financing, as well.
Suffolk borrowed $71 million from Santander to finance the purchase, a loan that’s due in September 2021, according to documents filed by the school. In March, Suffolk announced plans to issue $54.5 million in bonds to pay off the loan, and spread out the financing over a longer period of time, but it hasn’t yet sold them.
School officials have said they are watching the bond market to determine the right time for a sale, but that they still have time before the loan comes due. Nucci said the school wants to get the building into productive use as soon as possible, regardless of financing.
The BPDA has canceled most community meetings and public hearings on large projects since coronavirus shutdowns began in mid-March, halting the gears of planning and development in the city.
Winning approval for a big project can often involve round after round of long and sometimes contentious neighborhood meetings. BPDA officials are trying to figure out how best to recreate that process online in a way that’s fair to both developers and the many residents and advocates who weigh in on development plans, a spokeswoman said.
Suffolk’s dorm project had already gone through that process, winning generally positive reviews, before the pandemic. And the project has support from the Walsh administration, which has pushed colleges and universities to add student housing as a way to help pull students out of the local housing market. Only one step remained: a hearing before the BPDA’s board and a vote that would allow work to start.
That’s the vote set for Thursday, with Nucci making Suffolk’s presentation from his home in East Boston to an audience of BPDA board members and others watching from around the city on the Web platform Go To Meeting. Those who can’t access it online, or prefer not to, are asked to e-mail comments, which will be read aloud at the meeting. Projects that reach a board vote are nearly always approved.
It’s a strange way to end the planning, Nucci said. But the university is happy to be moving forward.
“We’re very excited by this project,” he said. “We think it’s a real win-win.”