Business

Shirley Leung

Even without Olympics, UMass Boston should still build dorms

Even without the Olympics, the University of Massachusetts Boston wants more student housing and is forging ahead on a once-controversial plan to build a 1,000-bed dormitory on its Columbia Point campus.

University officials are close to selecting a development team for the $120 million freshman residence hall, which would be built on the edge of campus by Mount Vernon Street. The Boston outpost is the only one within the UMass system without dorms.

With UMass nearly maxed out on its ability to borrow money, officials are seeking a public-private partnership for the project. Last week, the University of Massachusetts Building Authority gave the go-ahead for such a plan, which now heads to the governor’s office for approval.

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Under such an arrangement, the university would work with a developer to set up an entity that would construct, finance, and manage the residence hall. The university would then lease the land for the building to the entity, which would collect room and board fees.

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Now UMass Boston has been here before — on the cusp of getting dorms, only to see its plans derailed. But the University of Massachusetts’ president, Marty Meehan, is confident things will work out this time.

“Oh, it’s real,” Meehan told me. “Most definitely real.”

The last time UMass formally proposed dorms was back in 2003, and a lot of politics got in the way. Governor Mitt Romney, in a fight with then UMass president Billy Bulger, halted bond financing because his administration deemed the dorms fiscally unsound. Neighbors and local leaders, including then-mayor Tom Menino, also opposed student housing, fearing it would cause noise and parking problems in Dorchester. Bulger ultimately pulled the proposal.

This time, UMass doesn’t have to worry as much about its neighbors. Mayor Marty Walsh, who lives in Savin Hill, told me he supports the idea of dorms at UMass Boston, an idea that dovetails with his push to get colleges all over the city to house more students on their campuses.

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State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, whose district includes Dorchester, said UMass has spent a decade trying to repair its relationship with the community, and people are “open” to the idea of dorms. What’s also changed minds, she points out, is the tight real estate market. Putting students in their own housing will free up apartments for working families who want to stay in Dorchester.

“If UMass is able to build these dorms, it will alleviate the pressure on our neighborhood,” Forry said.

Frank Baker, the city councilor who represents that section of Dorchester, was more cautious. He described the community’s position as “skeptical” but acknowledged that’s an improvement from “adamantly opposed.”

“We don’t necessarily want to be overburdened with students in the neighborhood,” Baker said. “But there are plenty of students living here, and it seems to be working out.”

Here's why dorms matter to Meehan and UMass Boston Chancellor Keith Motley: It’s not just about bragging rights. The dorms are critical to student success; if they can keep kids on campus, especially freshmen, there’s a higher chance they’ll return as sophomores.

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It was true at UMass Lowell, which Meehan ran before his promotion. Once the school guaranteed freshman housing, the number of first-year students returning as sophomores rose to 85 percent, from 75 percent

Today’s dorms aren’t just a place for kids to sleep; they’re also infused with academic programming — all in an effort to keep students on track to graduate. The proposed UMass Boston dorm building would also feature a dining hall.

UMass Boston was founded as a commuter school for nontraditional students — those older and working. But today the campus is attracting students right out of high school, with freshmen enrollment nearly doubling over the past decade. The school has also undergone a recent building boom with a campus center, science center, and a soon-to-open academic hall.

Meehan and Motley will tell you that student housing is long overdue at UMass Boston for another reason. The school, with some 17,000 students, is the most diverse campus in New England, with people of color making up 52 percent of its student population. Not having dorms at this public institution becomes an issue of equity.

“It’s not about the vanity of a chancellor. It’s about the opportunity of a whole population of students who should have an opportunity to succeed,” Motley said. “We are not less than.”

UMass’s master plan calls for up to 2,000 beds in two phases. For the first phase, UMass has reviewed eight proposals and is in talks with one team.

I am told that the team consists of Capstone Development Partners, Elkus Manfredi Architects, Stantec, and Shawmut Design and Construction.

Had the Summer Games come to Boston, the university would have partnered with Boston 2024 to build an athletes’ village on and around school property to house some 16,000 visitors.

The region’s Olympic dream may be over, but that should not stop UMass Boston from getting its dorms.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @leung.