Dorms slip in to Dorchester

UMass Boston held a groundbreaking ceremony for the first-ever student housing on the Dorchester campus on Dec. 1. It’s fascinating how the local landscape and political climate has changed in the last decade. Ten years ago, a proposal to build dorms – enough for 2,000 beds – on the UMass Boston campus caused a firestorm of protest in this neighborhood.

Residents in surrounding villages in Dorchester were dead set against the idea, citing concerns about the changing mission of the school and recalling past assurances that the Dorchester Bay campus would never house dorms. Mayor Tom Menino, himself a graduate of UMass Boston, came out heavily against the UMass proposal. So did every other politician representing Dorchester, all responding to a groundswell of anxiety from civic leaders.

The town-gown battle that ensued ended when then-Gov. Mitt Romney froze the sale of $371 million in state bonds that would have funded the dorms’ construction. The UMass Boston chancellor who had become the face of the dorm debate — and had pledged to carry on with the effort despite the overwhelming opposition— left the post soon after the governor’s action.

In the last decade, much has changed in the local economy, particularly on the housing front. UMass Boston’s student population has grown significantly, with hundreds living in the Harbor Point development. UMass has built several new academic buildings and acquired the defunct Bayside Exposition Center, with an eye toward eventual expansion across the peninsula.

What remains remarkable is how little debate has accompanied the latest move to add on-campus housing. There were public meetings, and push-back from opponents, but no groundswell of the kind seen in 2002-2003, when the initial dorm plan was batted down.

One big difference this time is that the Walsh administration’s 2014 housing plan specifically calls for the addition of student dorms as one means of adding a total of 53,000 new units of housing citywide.

UMass Boston’s master plan, which calls for 2,000 units of dorms by 2025, dovetails nicely with the Walsh plan.

The new $120 million, 260,000-square-foot dorm building that will soon rise at the end of Mt. Vernon Street will house 1,077 students, all of them freshmen and transfers. It’ll be open for the first-year students in the fall of 2018. But questions remain:

Where will these students live the next year? Will the new building meet the stated goal of the Walsh administration’s housing plan to alleviate housing pressures on longtime Boston residents? Or will this fuel an increased demand among out-of-state or international students above and beyond what we see right now?

It’s worth noting that the new dormitory will rise next to the university’s athletic complex, which is named for a Dorchester civic champion, Catherine “Kit” Clark, who, in the 1970s, led the fight among local residents concerned about the impacts of the Columbia Point campus. Clark was particularly emphatic that dorms should never be part of the footprint on Columbia Point.

Times change. Certainly, there is a case to be made that the university is ready for on-campus housing.

However, it’s definitely time to have a fuller discussion of how this new reality will unfold beyond this decade.