Plan to Use Three Decker for College Dorm Under Scrutiny

The St. Mark's Area Civic Association will vote next week on whether or not to support a suburban college's proposal to use a three-decker as a dorm for undergraduate students enrolled in an urban immersion program. The idea has drawn criticism from some neighbors concerned that it might set an unwanted precedent in a neighborhood increasingly concerned about encroachment by UMass Boston.

Gordon College bought the house in question at 31 Roseland Street in March, according to Rev. Craig McMullen, a faculty member at the college who lives in Codman Square. McMullen serves as an associate pastor at Dorchester Temple Baptist Church on Washington Street and has been the key advocate for the school's proposal.

McMullen says that Gordon College, located in Wenham, Mass, wants to start a Boston Urban Semester program based out of the Roseland Street house. Eight to 12 students per semester would live on the top two floors of the house while serving as volunteers at a number of different neighborhood agencies and schools and studying "urban issues". A program manager, acting as a landlord, would live on the first floor.

"The reason why we looked at the St. Mark's-Codman Square area is simply because- and I'm biased- it's the best neighborhood in the city," says McMullen. "I see this corner of Dorchester as being the one intersection of the city that brings forth the best of Boston."

In order for the house to be used by the college, though, Gordon College must clear an obstacle set up in the 1960s to protect the neighborhood's housing stock from being converted into college dorms. More specifically, Article 52 of the city's charter was written in 1968 to prevent the University of Massachusetts, which was then building its Columbia Point campus, from encroaching into neighborhood residential areas. The city zoning code is worded precisely to prevent homes in wards 13 and 16 from being converted into student housing.

In order for Gordon College to circumvent the zoning law, they must obtain a variance from the city's Zoning Board of Appeal. First, though, McMullen says they want to have the neighborhood's support to go forward.

Barbara Bean, president of the St. Mark's Area Civic Association, says she expects heated debate on the issue at the group's meeting next Tuesday (May 28th at 7:30pm, Lower Hall of St. Mark's Church).

"People think it's a slippery slope issue," says Bean. "It's interesting that it's coming at us when UMass Boston is starting to talk about building dorms."

"We want to have a reasoned debate so that Gordon College can come out and give their side and people in the community can give their side," Bean says.

Craig McMullen argues that Gordon College's proposal should not be considered in the light of UMass' plans, because they are quite different. UMass, McMullen notes, wants to build new dormitories on Columbia Point for at least 2,000 students by 2004. McMullen says Gordon College would guarantee that the Roseland Street house would revert back to residential use if Gordon ever ended its urban immersion program.

"It is really apples and oranges," says McMullen. "Our college has no desire to take up housing stock in the city and that's why we're doing a very small, contained program."

McMullen, who serves as a member of the city-appointed Neighborhood Housing Trust, which directs linkage funds from development projects into affordable housing, says he is devoted to preserving housing for neighborhood residents. McMullen says the Roseland Street house was vacant when Gordon College bought it- and notes that the students will be serving in the neighborhood. They will also be governed by the Christian college's existing code of conduct which forbids the use of alcohol or tobacco by its students.

"We purchased the building, but have not moved in or started any programs knowing that unless the community welcomes us, we would not be able to bring our request to the zoning board," says McMullen.