The Wu administration is offering a multimillion-dollar aid package to help jumpstart construction on a long-stalled new campus for Franklin Cummings Tech near Nubian Square in Roxbury.
The $75 million project depended on the sale of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology’s existing campus on Berkeley Street in the South End, to developer Related Beal. But that sale has been held up by permitting delays and rising interest rates.
Now, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is offering a solution to break the logjam: tax breaks for Related Beal and a $4 million grant for the two-year technical school. The Boston Planning & Development Agency is poised to approve the package on Thursday.
“This is an opportunity for us to use some of our real estate tools to further a ... project that’s really about creating equity in the city,” BPDA director Arthur Jemison said. “It’s so essential to the momentum to Nubian Square. It’s not every day you have a school for tradespeople [focused on] people of color that is opening a new campus.”
The city’s aid package consists of at least three elements. First, the BPDA would give Related Beal a tax break for 41 Berkeley — where Related has plans to build roughly 250,000 square feet of housing — that would keep taxes low on the property for 30 years; in return, the BPDA gets a new small minority stake in the parcel. The BPDA would also give $4 million via a “recoverable” grant to Franklin Cummings Tech, to help fund its Nubian Square project. And the agency would waive $745,000 that it would otherwise be owed under a previous agreement because of the change in use proposed for the 41 Berkeley property.
The total value of this package is unclear because neither Related nor the BPDA provided a projection for 41 Berkeley’s post-development tax assessment. The provision essentially sets property taxes for 41 Berkeley at $500,000 annually for 10 years and then would increase by the rate of inflation for 19 years after that. It would still be more than the city gets today, because Franklin Cummings Tech is a nonprofit and pays no property taxes there.
A spokesperson for Related Beal said the developer “deeply values its partnership with Franklin Cummings Tech, the City of Boston, and the BPDA, and supports efforts that advance the school’s new campus and its mission.”
In a statement, Wu said the city’s financing package allows Franklin Cummings Tech to finally break ground on its new home. “I am delighted that the City of Boston was able to step up as a partner to help realize this long-held dream for the school and for all the community members who will continue to benefit from the opportunities this will create,” she added.
Franklin Cummings Tech’s move to Roxbury holds much promise: The school finally gets a modern campus, to train the workforce of the future, while the school’s hundreds of students from low-income families and 100-plus employees would help with the rejuvenation of the Nubian Square area.
The move has been in the works for a decade but advanced significantly in 2019. That’s when Franklin Cummings Tech bought the site for its future home on Harrison Avenue in Roxbury. Eventually the college obtained city approval to build a three-story, 68,000-square-foot building there.
Also in 2019, the institute — then known as Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, or BFIT — reached its deal to sell its South End campus to Related Beal, with the proceeds from that sale intended to pay for the new building. The sale was originally supposed to close after Related won city approval for its plan to turn 41 Berkeley into an assisted living facility and condos while Franklin Cummings Tech would stay put, as a tenant, until the Nubian Square building was ready. Permitting slowed down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, transitions in City Hall across three mayoral administrations, and some pushback from neighbors concerned about the height of one of Related Beal’s buildings. The South End project eventually won BPDA approval last December.
By then, though, interest rates had soared, driving up the cost of financing. Although Related Beal could no longer make the numbers work for its development, officials at Franklin Cummings Tech were still eager to press forward. Complicating matters: instability in the banking sector brought about by the collapse of SVB and First Republic earlier this year.
Aisha Francis, the school’s president, said that’s why she approached City Hall for help in the spring, kicking off months of talks that led to the aid package that goes before the BPDA on Thursday.
The institute now plans to take out a bridge loan, so it can start construction before Related Beal is ready to close on the purchase of 41 Berkeley. The grant from the city will help pay for the financing costs. Once the sale of 41 Berkeley closes, Francis hopes to use the proceeds to pay off that loan, to ensure the school doesn’t get saddled with debt.
“There’s a real imperative to activate Nubian Square in a way that is befitting of a neighborhood that has had six decades of divestment because of urban renewal,” Francis said. “We’re happy to be a part of that puzzle, to be an anchor institution. ... To be physically located there and close to transportation hubs is an important strategic choice for our institution. We’re deeply grateful for the city of Boston for their role in that.”
The Harrison Avenue site has already been cleared. Construction won’t start until the school closes on its bridge loan, something that’s expected in the coming weeks.
So when will the new building be ready? Optimistically, Francis said, the institute is shooting for 2026. But she notes that in 2018, college officials had expected to be in it by now.