Editorial: UMass does the right thing at Bayside site

The UMass Building Authority (UMBA) and UMass President Martin Meehan made the right decision this week with regard to the former Bayside Expo site on Columbia Point. The authority, in issuing a Request for Information from developers, has taken the first step toward transforming the now empty and lifeless waterfront tract into a bustling “oceanfront neighborhood” that will serve as a new gateway to UMass Boston.

The document— made public on Tuesday— is likely to generate strong interest from investors who will be enticed by the location and the chance to partner up with UMBA, a quasi-public agency that is exempt from many of the regulatory hurdles that other entities face with planning initiatives. By blending the university’s ambitions to expand its academic footprint with the market forces at work in a booming Boston, the opportunity is there for the development of an exciting new section of Dorchester.

The RFI document is clear about the university’s interests. The UMass Boston Campus Plan, which looks out over a 25-year period, identified the Bayside parcel as a prime place to lay out new academic facilities— as much as 1.5 million square feet over time, according to the RFI. The university also needs parking and would like to add as many as 3,000 units of student housing.

But, ideally, the eventual development partner will make Bayside much more than an extension of the campus. In a brief section that synopsizes the RFI’s objectives, UMBA officials invoke Harvard Square and the New Balance/Boston Landing projects as examples for the sort of concepts they hope to see generated through this process.

The university employed a similar, though not exactly the same, sequence of engagement with developers when it set out to build its first-ever on-campus dorms, which are now under construction on Columbia Point. In that scenario, the UMBA invited potential developers to submit Requests for Qualifications— a sort of pre-approval process to test the waters ahead of a more precise bid for proposals. The RFQ generated eight potential bidders and facilitated the process of moving ahead with an eventual contract.

It’s very likely — though not promised— that that’s what will happen at Bayside with the launch of this week’s RFI, which is non-binding but which will likely sharpen the vision and the timing for what could be done. The model would likely be a lease agreement that “would not exceed 99 years,” giving the university the means to leverage its prime real estate holding without having to sit on it for a decade or longer while righting its own financial ship.

That’s an important dynamic here. Ten years ago, Bayside was poised to be transformed into a whole new neighborhood under the ownership of Corcoran Jennison, the company that still owns the neighboring Harbor Point community, the DoubleTree Hotel and the Bayside Office Center (in which the Reporter is a longtime tenant.) But Corcoran Jennison lost the Bayside land when the recession hit hard during the last decade. UMass swooped in and bought it fair and square. But the university has not had the means to build out Bayside as it executes more pressing matters closer in on its original campus on Dorchester Bay.

Instead, Bayside has been subject to the whimsies of powerful interests from far beyond its confines. First, the Boston 2024 debacle and then, more recently, a unilateral and ultimately fruitless flirtation with the Kraft empire, which courted UMass with the notion of erecting a 20,000-seat soccer stadium to share with the Revolution and the university. Not the worst idea ever conceived— and yet it was done so clandestinely as to arouse grave concerns in this space and elsewhere.

What UMass has done this week was suggested in this column months ago: Let’s open up the Bayside question to parties far and wide and see what comes of it. UMass needs a suitor, to be sure, but it (or rather, we) can afford to be picky. In a city swallowed up by builders looking for every square inch of land on which to lay a brick, Bayside’s 20 acres of beautiful waterfront space, just minutes into the city core from a nearby transit hub, is the belle of the ball.

We wish that this had come to pass four years ago, when today’s boom-time was just ramping up. It’s not too late to create something spectacular on the old Bayside Expo grounds. We hope that this request by UMass will yield just that in relatively short order.

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