As development moves at a breakneck pace along the Orange Line north of downtown, the people who run Bunker Hill Community College want a piece of the action.
The college has drafted a proposal to redevelop its 32-acre Charlestown campus, in the shadow of Interstate 93. The aim: find a developer willing to replace Bunker Hill’s mostly 1970s-vintage concrete buildings with a more modern campus, a project that could cost more than $450 million. In return, the developer could then build on the rest of the property, perhaps as much as 3 million square feet.
The plans are set for a public hearing on Thursday, ahead of a vote of the state’s Asset Management Board next month. College officials, working with the Charlestown community, would then take a year or two to craft a request for proposals for a long-term lease for the site, one that could last up to 99 years. The entire process, including full construction, could take a decade or more.
Bunker Hill’s existing campus needs at least $125 million in capital improvements, college president Pam Eddinger said. For that reason, Eddinger decided it made more sense to try a public-private partnership similar to an approach tried by other state agencies than have the college, which serves more than 16,000 students, finance the upgrades itself. Bunker Hill has started work on a student services center, which would remain in place after it opens in 2024. But the rest of the interconnected buildings, including a gym and fitness center that opened in 2009, would go away.
“Even if you had the money, you wouldn’t want to restore these buildings back to their 1970s glory,” Eddinger said.
Eddinger envisions a campus that is somewhat smaller, in terms of square footage, but also taller and more efficient. With the new student services center, the college will occupy about 510,000 square feet, but a redeveloped school facility would likely be closer to 400,000 square feet. Bunker Hill will seek offers that at least provide the new facility at minimal or no cost to the state. The hope is to provide an array of modern labs and other amenities that could better prepare students for the business community’s workforce needs.
“I don’t know how to defend a laboratory or classroom that’s falling apart around their ears,” Eddinger said. “Either we build new buildings, or I’m going to have to patch up the old ones. And patching up the old ones really isn’t the responsible thing to do.”
Another goal: opening up the college to the community. The school is largely separated from the neighborhood by busy Rutherford Avenue, though it does adjoin the Orange Line stop that shares its name.
“It’s a castle in a moat,” Eddinger said of the college’s current layout. “I could literally dig a ditch, build a moat, and fill it with water and alligators.”
Instead, she hopes to test the market, and local real estate experts say she should expect a warm reception, given the school’s proximity to the T and downtown Boston.
“There are not too many locations like that in the city left,” said Tucker White, Northeast regional manager at brokerage Avison Young.
White noted several key infrastructure projects will be completed in the coming years that will make Charlestown even more attractive, including the arrival of new Orange Line cars and the replacement of the North Washington Street bridge to the North End. The community college, White added, is also essentially within walking distance of North Station.
Bryan Connolly, managing partner at law firm DLA Piper’s Boston office and a real estate specialist, said it’s hard to know whether the college will be able to fetch enough to completely pay for its campus makeover. But there’s no doubt the college will hear from interested potential bidders, particularly given its rapid transit access and its proximity to the cluster of biotechs and other life science companies across the tracks in Cambridge.
“There are a lot of open questions but no doubt it’s going to stir the imagination of any significant developer in town,” Connolly said.
The Bunker Hill project could be part of a third wave of development along the Orange Line’s northern stretch, between Malden and North Station. The first construction boom was led by the Station Landing development that opened in 2006 around the Wellington station in Medford, while the second happened in the mid-2010s, largely driven by the opening of Assembly Row in Somerville and the new Assembly station, real estate consultant Brendan Carroll said. Now, several large projects are in the works in and around Sullivan Square, just north of Bunker Hill. Since 2014, Carroll said, more than 11 million square feet of projects have been completed or are under construction within a 10-minute walk of a station on the Orange Line’s northern section.
“Every station north of Government Center all the way up to and including Malden Center has been a developer’s playground,” said Carroll, president of Respoke LLC. “The recipe that’s worked really well recently is that mixed-use community where you have the offices, you have the residences, and then you have the retail that basically supports and benefits from those other two.”
Still, the potential buildout of Bunker Hill’s campus will add to the concerns of locals such as Rosemary Macero, who is frustrated with the amount of development planned along the edges of a neighborhood bordered by water on three sides.
“I don’t know how we’re going to breathe,” said Macero, a Charlestown Neighborhood Council member who lives in the Charlestown Navy Yard. “And I don’t know how we’re going to get in and out of Boston.”
Eddinger met with a few members of the neighborhood council to share her vision earlier this month. She recognizes their concerns and says the college will work with the residents to come up with a plan that doesn’t overpower the neighborhood.
“Having absolutely no development is not reasonable,” Eddinger said. “But having development that hogties the residents is not reasonable either.”
At least Macero and Eddinger can agree on one thing.
“What they have there now is ugly,” Macero said, “no doubt about it.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.