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Dorm rooms at the Westin? Hotels and universities are teaming up to offer socially distanced student housing

The Midtown Hotel on Huntington Avenue will serve as a Northeastern dorm for the school year, one of numerous such arrangements in Boston.
The Midtown Hotel on Huntington Avenue will serve as a Northeastern dorm for the school year, one of numerous such arrangements in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When students return to Northeastern University this fall, some will move into campus dorms. Others will call the Copley Place Westin home. Suffolk University students will spread out among four downtown hotels. And a few dozen up-and-coming musicians at the New England Conservatory of Music will settle in at the South End’s hip Revolution Hotel.

As Boston’s universities and hotels both find themselves wrestling with the realities of life with coronavirus, some of them are teaming up to house students in a socially distanced fashion.

Three schools — Northeastern, Suffolk, and the New England Conservatory — have asked the Walsh administration for approval to lease floors of hotels and ― in some cases ― entire hotels for use as dorms. And Boston University wants to take over a Commonwealth Avenue apartment building that has been used as temporary student housing for several years to supplement its dorm space.

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The hotel plans, universities and hotel operators say, will help ease a number of problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can offer more students a chance to live in single rooms, while hotels whose business has been devastated by the collapse of the travel industry can lock down steady income for months to come.

“It makes perfect sense,” said John Nucci, senior vice president for external affairs at Suffolk. “Universities get to provide a safe environment for their students. And the city’s struggling hotels get a much-needed boost.”

Under plans filed this month with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, Suffolk would lease several floors of the Hyatt hotel on Devonshire Street downtown, the Doubletree on Washington Street in Chinatown, and the Wyndham on Blossom Street near Massachusetts General Hospital. It would also take over the entire Boxer Hotel in the Bulfinch Triangle.

All told, the plan would provide 473 rooms to supplement Suffolk’s dorm space around Beacon Hill, along with the former Ames Hotel on Court Street, which the school bought last year for $63.5 million with plans to make it a dorm. That building, set to open in September, will allow Suffolk to offer single rooms, instead of doubles and triples, while maintaining its dorm capacity.

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“It comes down to basic math,” Nucci said. “The safest scenario is a private bedroom for each student. To do that, we have to reduce our dorm capacity by about half. But that’s what hotels provide.”

Hotel living will cost students the same amount of money as typical dorms, though Nucci acknowledged it will cost more for Suffolk to lease hotel rooms than it does to operate the on-campus housing. But there won’t be all the amenities associated with a hotel ― for example, students shouldn’t count on daily housekeeping.

Still, the schools won’t be paying the full rack rate for rooms, either. Most have negotiated a discount in exchange for guaranteeing bookings every night from September through May. For hotel operators, which have seen tourism and business travel evaporate these last few months, that’s a good deal, said Bruce Percelay, chairman of Mount Vernon Co., which owns the Revolution.

“They’re definitely paying below market,” he said. “However, you have 100 percent occupancy and reduced operating expenses. So what you net is not unreasonable. It works well for both parties.”

With a few exceptions — including the Boxer and the recently sold Midtown Hotel on Huntington Avenue, which Northeastern will take over — most of the locations involved will function partly as hotels even while hosting students, though students will be on floors separate from the regular guests.

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Percelay said he’s planning an array of cleaning protocols at the Revolution, a former hostel where the New England Conservatory will take over one or two floors, depending on the need, to keep everyone safe.

“We’ve got all these products,” he said. “We’ll be using hospital-grade materials and a hospital approach in a hotel.”

Hotels need the business, said Rachel Roginsky, principal at Pinnacle Advisory Group, a hotel consulting firm in Boston.

Many of the city’s larger hotels closed in March and are only now reopening; their occupancy rates remain far below normal during what’s typically the peak tourism season in Boston. Fall business travel looks to be slow. Conventions are gone. If they’re lucky, Roginsky estimates, Boston hotels will sell 35 to 40 percent of their room nights for the full year. So long-term deals, even at reduced rates, can be a lifesaver.

“A hotel can pay the mortgage and the taxes and keep the lights on,” she said. “This isn’t going to get better this year, and probably not in the first quarter of next year, either.”

Indeed, Roginsky said she has helped to negotiate a few similar deals in other cities and has witnessed hotels competing for universities’ business.

Kathy Spiegelman, Northeastern’s vice president and chief of campus planning and development, said she had many hoteliers reaching out to her, too. Along with the Midtown, where Northeastern has occasionally housed students in the past, her university will take over 11 floors of the Westin and plans to rent 147 apartments in smaller buildings near its campus.

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“The hotels in the city have been knocking at our door to see if in fact they can help us alleviate the density of housing on campus,” Spiegelman said. “It’s kind of a win-win.”

Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.