In Nahant, a seaside research center has turned into a bitter battleground
NAHANT — Since 1967, scientists at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center have quietly gone about their work, studying ocean life from East Point, a spectacular rocky bluff that juts into the Atlantic Ocean and was once home to Henry Cabot Lodge’s estate and a World War II bunker.
But that scenic outpost has turned into a bitter battleground. Neighbors are fighting Northeastern’s proposal to build a 60,000-square-foot addition to the center as part of an ambitious plan to turn it into a nationally regarded coastal sustainability institute.
In an ironic twist, residents assert the institute dedicated to protecting vulnerable coastal communities will instead ruin the natural beauty of East Point — one of Nahant’s most cherished spots — and make the state’s smallest town feel more like a heavily traveled college campus.
“No matter how you design it, a 60,000-square-foot building on what we call Nahant’s last wild area will destroy it,” said Jim Walsh, a former selectman.
Jim Dolan, a retired high-tech worker who raised five children in Nahant, said he is so angry at Northeastern’s “total disrespect and total disregard” for the town he’s ready to set fire to the master’s degree he earned from the university in the 1970s.
“How about if we get everyone from Nahant who has a Northeastern degree to go to the board of directors meeting and burn them all?” Dolan said. “I don’t do that lightly. I’m a big education guy. But having a university take a position to not honor its neighbors is unconscionable.”
Such is the intensity of the opposition in Nahant, a one-square-mile peninsula that is home to 4,000 residents and has been a haven for wealthy families since the 19th century.
Hundreds of signs on front lawns in town declare, “Love Nahant, No Northeastern Expansion.” Residents have picketed outside the gates of the center and packed a Town Hall meeting last month, booing when Northeastern officials presented their expansion plans.
Last week, the bad blood reached a boiling point when Northeastern canceled a lecture at the center titled, “Nitrogen: Friend or Foe? Effects of Fertilization on a New England Salt Marsh.” University officials feared that residents who had been posting hostile messages on social media would disrupt the talk.
“It’s been really hard coming through town, the town that I’ve been driving through for 30 years, seeing such hostility,” said Geoffrey Trussell, the center director, who has worked there for three decades, studying ocean predators.
The fight is not the only one Northeastern is waging as it expands.
In Roxbury, residents protested the construction of a 20-story student housing tower, arguing it would exacerbate gentrification. Burlington residents, meanwhile, are battling Northeastern’s plan to build a 104,000-square-foot addition to its homeland security research institute, saying it will ruin an adjacent park.
But officials in Burlington and Boston have been generally supportive of those projects, unlike the selectmen in Nahant, who have hired an outside law firm to fight Northeastern in court, as soon as the university seeks a building permit.
On paper, at least, it would be a lopsided contest between a North Shore town with an $11 million annual budget and a Boston-based university with more than 20,000 students and an endowment of about $750 million.
But Enzo Barile, chairman of the Nahant Board of Selectmen, said, “The town is ready to do battle, and we’ve got plenty of people ready to it, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Frustrated with the opposition, Northeastern has launched a direct-mail campaign to persuade Nahanters to support the expansion. The first mailing, an answer to frequently asked questions, started arriving in mailboxes Monday.
“In most communities, when we have plans to build a new building, we work very closely with elected officials and other town officials,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs. “Here, we have learned that we need to communicate directly with the residents and work directly with the residents. The normal approach didn’t work.”
Nearby Lynn and Salem have each expressed interest in bringing the expansion project to their waterfronts, if Nahant succeeds in blocking the project.
Some Nahanters view the offers as a win-win solution, saving their coastline while bringing a much-needed economic boost to an urban area.
But Northeastern says it wants to remain on East Point and will explore “all legal options” to expand on its property, if the town rejects its permits.
“Universities take the long view,” Armini said. “We’ve been here for over 50 years; we look forward to being here for over 50 years more.”
The $50 million expansion on such a picturesque bluff is designed to help Northeastern attract academic talent from across the world so it can compete with Stanford, the University of California Santa Cruz, and other top coastal sustainability programs.
The center has already grown dramatically since six years ago, when it had just four professors. It now employs 51 people — 20 faculty, 20 staff, and 11 postdoctoral scientists. After the expansion, it would employ 87 people — 40 faculty, 25 staff, and 22 postdoctoral students.
The new facility would wedge two stories and a basement onto the side and top of a concrete bunker that housed two anti-submarine guns during World War II. It later served as a Nike missile site during the Cold War.
The site, in a low-lying section of East Point, is intended to hide the building from view as much as possible, Trussell said.
But residents argue the facility will spoil the vistas on East Point, which has a popular walking trail; threaten migratory birds that land on the bluff; and bring traffic and noise to a quiet town that has no gas station, traffic lights, or grocery stores.
Josh Mahoney, a local lobsterman, said the seawater that the center pumps into its research tanks and discharges back into the ocean has already warmed the waters off East Point, scaring away lobsters. He said the problem will only get worse if the center expands.
“They want to attract scientists from all over the world, and say, ‘Look! Come study here at Northeastern. We preach coastal sustainability.’ Yet they’ve destroyed the coastal sustainability right here in their hometown,’” Mahoney said.
Trussell said the center has shelved plans to expand its pumping capacity on East Point, and he noted that the ocean is warming because of climate change — not discharge from the center’s research tanks.
“You’re talking with a bunch of environmentalists here; we’re not interested in destroying the environment,” Trussell said.
He said the facility will actually address some of the most pressing problems facing coastal communities, such as overfishing, pollution, sea-level rise, and storm surge.
“This is not only for the benefit of Northeastern, and not only for the benefit of Nahant,” Trussell said. “But it’s also for the benefit of society at large, because the issues we are tackling are fundamentally important.”