UMass defends dorms at Columbia-Savin Hill

In sharp exchanges with some local neighborhood activists, UMass Boston officials defended their plans to build dorms to house some 1,000 on-campus beds in the next ten years as part of the school's overhaul.

"We are a commuter school. We are going to continue to be a commuter school," Ellen O'Connor, the campus's vice chancellor for administration and finance, said to roughly 40 people assembled at Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association's Monday night meeting at the Little House.

The plan for on-campus housing, which will ultimately result in 2,000 beds by the end of the university's 25-year master plan, is coupled with hopes to build three new academic buildings and two 1,000-car parking garages, open up the campus by bringing down the plaza and relocate the university's utilities.

The civic association, which once had a UMass Committee to handle its opposition to dorms, did not take a vote after the brief presentation, saying they needed time to mull it over.

"I commend them for coming out," said Deirdre Habershaw, head of the association, who has voiced opposition to dorms in the past. "But I think I still have the same feelings as before."

Don Walsh, a member of the association, peppered O'Connor with questions, noting that little had changed since the university's first attempt at building dorms nearly four years ago.

Former Chancellor Michael Collins restarted the conversation during his tenure, with aides attempting reach out to community leaders and salve over the wounds inflicted by the previous administration. The current chancellor, Keith Motley, is also pushing for dorms.

Walsh pressed O'Connor, who acknowledged the UMass Board of Trustees had seen the plan, but had not signed off on any specific construction.

She stressed the current master plan is a "living document," subject to change.

"We have looked at what's been done in the past and we know this is a difficult topic," she said of dorms. "I don't have a construction plan on anything here."

O'Connor also said that while the school doesn't have much power in controlling who gets a shot at the construction jobs, having Dorchester residents work is "a reasonable thing for us to support."

Others had concerns over increased traffic. UMass officials hope to revamp the roadways, shifting the current "racetrack" structure deeper inland and creating roads going through the campus.

"Your plan perseveres over our well-being," said Roger Ramie, who also pointed to other development projects on Columbia Point. "That's going to add to [the traffic], too," he said.

O'Connor said the university is working with two agencies, the state's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the city's Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), to ensure traffic doesn't increase. O'Connor said 52 percent of students come by public transportation.

While Mayor Thomas Menino has voiced support for dorms and the overall plan, other local politicians have been more cautious. Some note dorms remain far down the road, with old buildings coming down and new buildings going up a higher priority for the campus.

"I'm going to wait and see what happens," said state Rep. Martin Walsh. "Dorms is a question for another day."

Rep. Walsh also voiced support for one of the new UMass administration officials, Arthur Bernard. Bernard joined UMass Boston as its vice chancellor for government relations and public affairs in November after six months as general counsel to the UMass Building Authority. Bernard is also former chief of staff to Senate President Robert Travaglini, and knows the district and area.

"He does understand all that stuff," Walsh said.