When Northeastern University filed plans in 2019 to build a massive dormitory at Columbus Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, Kim Janey was not a fan of the proposal. Janey, then a city councilor, sent a letter to the Boston Planning & Development Agency expressing her “deep concern” about the project and Northeastern’s relationship with its neighbors in her Roxbury district.
Now Janey runs the city as acting mayor, and the school’s plans for its dorm are about to land on her desk. With a key vote by the BPDA coming as soon as this spring, many in her neighborhood remain staunchly opposed to the dorm.
The project is shaping up as an early test for the acting mayor and her approach to large-scale development. It also highlights how positions Janey took as a district city councilor might — or might not — evolve now that she represents the entire city.
At issue is a 25-story tower — mostly dorm space, with classrooms on the lower floors — that Northeastern would co-develop with private student housing builder American Campus Communities. It would transform a parking lot on a key corner of Roxbury into another high-profile building in a neighborhood that has long eyed the university’s southward expansion with suspicion.
As part of the project, Northeastern is offering to set aside the ground floor as community space geared toward small business and economic development in Roxbury. But critics worry that the rest of the tower — with its 810 dorm beds expected to cost around $1,500 a month — will further accelerate mounting economic pressures on the largely Black and working-class neighborhood next door.
“The issue here is they’re creating this very high-cost housing, and they’re placing it in Roxbury, facing the community,” said former city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson, who has long been critical of Northeastern’s dealings in the neighborhood. “I believe they’re driving displacement and the gentrification of lower Roxbury on purpose.”
When Janey succeeded Jackson on the City Council in 2017, she took a similar stance. And she was quick to blast Northeastern’s plan when it was filed with the city in late 2019. She pointed to a new Northeastern engineering building just up Columbus Avenue and a high-rise dorm the university had opened that fall as projects that did little to help the community as the school promised.
“This new development stands to be no different,” she wrote in a letter to the BPDA, “and will certainly exacerbate the housing shortage and availability crisis to which Northeastern has heavily contributed.”
But one way that previous mayors, especially Janey’s predecessor, Martin J. Walsh, tried to address the citywide housing shortage was by urging universities to build more dorms, pulling their students out of apartments in campus-adjacent neighborhoods. Indeed, in a statement, Northeastern said the dorm project being debated now was launched “at the request of the city.”
“In creating more opportunities for students to live on campus, this development will actually reduce gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods,” the university said. It has agreed to vacate several apartment buildings it leases in the Fenway when the dorm opens, freeing them up for general use.
That promise has won Northeastern the support of other neighborhood groups, including the Fenway Community Development Corp., which has long agitated for local colleges to house more of their own students to ease rents in that part of town.
“We have an affordable housing crisis in this city,” said Rich Giordano, Fenway Community Development’s director of policy. “Building a dorm there will actually help address it.”
How the Janey administration might address the conflicting priorities is not yet clear. The project is under BPDA review, with a community meeting being planned for later this month. Northeastern is pushing for a board vote by June, which it says is essential to starting construction in time to open the dorm for the 2024-25 school year. The acting mayor’s office declined interview requests on the project, but in a statement signaled a willingness to keep negotiating.
“The BPDA and Mayor Janey are working closely with Northeastern and the community to resolve the concerns the proposed dorm has raised, including how it will support the neighboring communities and benefit the residents of Roxbury,” it read.
Janey’s position on building projects could be a key factor in her campaign to win election this fall. Scrutiny of her views on development started early in her tenure as acting mayor. In March, a week after she was sworn in, Janey drew fire over two matters before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
First, a Janey representative said the mayor would not take a position on a proposed digital billboard on Causeway Street, but suggested the billboard could be appropriate — a declaration that upset the many opponents of the project, including the BPDA and several city councilors. The plan was ultimately voted down.
Then, in the same meeting, she also offered support for a plan by short-term rental operator Sonder to convert 26 downtown apartments into executive suites — furnished apartments that can be rented out much like a hotel room. That tactic is seen by many people as a way to exploit a loophole in Boston’s strict rules barring some short-term rentals.
In 2018, as a councilor, Janey had backed those rules, which aim to prevent landlords from leasing apartments by the night on platforms such as Airbnb and instead keep them in the city’s general housing stock. Several councilors said Sonder was trying to flout the regulations by seeking an exemption. But Janey supported the company, and its request was approved.
“It was disappointing to see us, under the current administration, support the executive suites,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards at a recent City Council hearing on the issue. “I would call on [us] to make sure that we’re consistent, and that we look back on what we fought for as a council to make sure we don’t undo it.”
In her Roxbury backyard, several neighborhood activists said they hope Janey will hold a firm line with Northeastern. Angie Camacho, one of nine people running to succeed Janey on the City Council, said she understands that the acting mayor has a broader purview now, but she urged her to consider other options to address Northeastern’s housing needs. The university, Camacho said, is “encroaching on the neighborhood.”
“As mayor, I can see where she would be doing things differently,” she said. “There’s a balance there that we haven’t found the right solution for.”
Being well-versed in the long history of Northeastern and Roxbury, Janey should be able to strike that balance, said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson.
The corner where Northeastern wants to build the dorm is the last chunk of a 6-acre site — known as Parcel 18 — that was cleared in the 1960s for the inner-belt highway project that Roxbury and Jamaica Plain residents eventually fought off. In the 1980s, former governor Michael Dukakis awarded Parcel 18 to a group of minority investors as part of the development of the One Lincoln tower downtown.
In the mid ’90s, a Registry of Motor Vehicles office was built there, quickly to be abandoned over concerns about poor air quality. Northeastern acquired the site and built its Renaissance Park garage and office building and the huge International Village dorm complex. Now it aims to finish the site with its dorm tower, though it faces a lawsuit, filed in December in Suffolk County, from the original investor group. Those investors say they’re still entitled to a piece of anything that gets built on Parcel 18. Northeastern disagrees.
The property has long been considered vital to bringing good jobs and economic development to Roxbury, Wilkerson said. Northeastern should be pushed to make that happen, she said, whether by Janey or whoever might follow her in the mayor’s office. The university has had its way on the edge of Roxbury for too long, Wilkerson said.
“The welcome mat they may have felt they had on the fifth floor of City Hall is not going to be extended to them much longer,” said Wilkerson, who is leading an effort to unite support around a single Black candidate in the mayor’s race but has not yet endorsed one. “Standing up to the university is going to be a requirement for whoever sits there.”
Tim Logan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.