Benjamin Franklin Institute will sell South End campus, relocate school
Another small private college is looking to move.
Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology on Monday told its students and staff that the school plans to sell its century-old building in the South End and look for a new campus elsewhere in Boston.
It’s a bid to cash in on the city’s hot real estate market and create a modern campus for the technical school, said president Anthony Benoit. The school, founded in 1908, has long considered a move, he said, and decided now was the right time to sell. The proceeds, he said, will help fund facilities that will be more in line with the needs of future students.
“We have a responsibility to do that,” Benoit said. “There’s this excitement of building the school of our dreams, not this school that’s retrofitted to the dreams of someone 100 years ago.”
Ben Franklin’s decision comes amid a time of increasing turmoil for small local colleges.
Mount Ida College closed last spring and sold its campus in Newton to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to pay off debt. Newbury College recently said it plans to close after this academic year and has put its Brookline campus on the market. Other schools — from Boston University to Simmons University to UMass Boston — have sold or are selling property to funnel money into other needs.
Unlike some of those schools, Benoit stressed, Ben Franklin’s finances are stable.
Enrollment has grown by 20 percent in recent years, to about 600 students, and tuition — at roughly $16,000 per year, with many students receiving federal Pell Grants — is lower than at some schools that have struggled to attract students. But Ben Franklin has an endowment of just $4 million — a sum Benoit hopes the property sale will bolster — and in recent years has poured an increasing amount of money into maintenance at its current building, which the school has occupied since it opened in 1908.
“We’re at a point where we really needed to make a decision,” he said. “We can either put a fair amount of money into this place, or we can start with a clean sheet of paper and build what we want.”
As it goes forward with selling the South End campus, Ben Franklin will start searching for a new home. The school is looking for 100,000 square feet, one-third bigger than the current space, somewhere in Boston — ideally with good access to transit for students, most of whom commute from other parts of the city and neighboring communities. Benoit said it hasn’t been determined whether it’s better to have a standalone building or to rent space in a larger building. But the school does want a home that feels distinctive, he said.
“There needs to be a strong sense of campus,” Benoit said. “When you’re at BFIT, you need to know it.”
Meanwhile, the school’s current home could fetch a sizable sum, likely in the tens of millions of dollars.
The triangular site — more than an acre at the junction of Appleton, Berkeley, and Tremont streets — holds three buildings and has a significant amount of open land. It’s just blocks from Back Bay office towers and the fast-changing area of the South End around the Ink Block development.
“It’s kind of a center-of-everything location,” said Chris Phaneuf, managing director at the real estate firm HFF, which is handling the sale. “It presents a really interesting opportunity.”
Any redevelopment would need approval from the city and, most likely, the blessing of neighborhood groups. Phaneuf said it would probably make sense to use the property for housing or a hotel, with restaurants and stores to enliven the street level. He said the sale process won’t begin in earnest until the school has a clearer sense of where it might go, perhaps later this spring.
“This is really a two-step process,” Phaneuf said.
Benoit said Ben Franklin hopes to be in its new home by the fall of 2022, and better equipped for a world of education that its namesake, Franklin, and its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, could never have dreamed.
“I would imagine that over the next 20 years education may change more than it has in the last 100,” he said. “We have a really great opportunity to build the infrastructure for that from the start, rather than try to retrofit it where we are now.”