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Boston’s Universities Put On Development Hat Amid Regional Construction Boom

Greater Boston’s universities recognize they have a role in housing and fueling the talent pipeline for the numerous companies relocating or expanding in New England’s largest city. It is causing several to enter the development arena, but good neighbor relations are key to breaking ground.

MIT's Great Dome

“The reason we are developing our Kendall Square buildings and the Volpe building is so we can bring in commercial enterprisers to work closely with our faculty, students and researchers to expedite the process of research and bring products to market,” MIT co-Director of Government and Community Relations Sarah Gallop said. “The power of proximity is something we now know expedites the path of innovation.” 

MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative, a mixed-use plan the university developed in tandem with Cambridge leaders and community members, is delivering a wide range of housing, lab and research space, retail and open space to the neighborhood adjacent to campus. MIT is planning something similar at the nearby Volpe Transportation Center

Other universities like Harvard in Allston as well as UMass Boston in Dorchester are underway or considering placemaking projects of their own, and many in the region’s real estate community believe it is driven by the success playing out in Kendall Square.

Boeing, the initiative’s first major tenant, will lease 100K SF at 314 Main St. in Kendall. The deal is the latest chapter in a 100-year relationship between the aerospace company and MIT, and Gallop, who is speaking at Bisnow’s Boston Student Housing & Higher Education event on Sept. 13, said the proximity to campus is what has driven companies like Pfizer and Novartis to locate research and lab facilities in East Cambridge.

“For us, MIT really believes it has the ability to make some significant progress in the world. In order to do that, there has to be the place for us to do the work. That’s why we engage in development,” she said. “The industry and academia partnership is more important than ever before.”

The Kendall Square skyline in East Cambridge

While the higher education development boom may seem sudden, the foundation has been setting for decades. It took MIT eight years of working with the community to come up with the Kendall Square Initiative. Elsewhere, institutions like Boston University and Harvard have been acquiring and repositioning land for years with different goals.

“The impact of the institutions is more prominent right now than it has ever been before, whether it’s in investment or the divesting of real estate investments,” Cabot, Cabot & Forbes CEO Jay Doherty said. 

Harvard’s Allston expansion has led to it owning more land in Boston than in Cambridge, and many in Boston’s real estate community project the Allston campus and surrounding land will become the region’s next innovation district. Boston University owned several buildings around Kenmore Square, including the one beneath the iconic Citgo sign, before selling them to Related Beal in 2016 for about $140M. 

The university says its development strategy was more about reviving the adjoining neighborhood. What was once a grittier neighborhood is now home to fine dining like Eastern Standard and the Hotel Commonwealth, thanks to BU’s involvement.

“It was really to change the image of Kenmore Square,” Boston University Executive Director Marc Robillard said. “It was kind of a hippie, utopian, grungy punk rock type of place. We wanted to change that image because it is the front door of our campus.”

Boston University sold several buildings it owned in Kenmore Square to Related Beal in 2016 for about $140M.

All of those interviewed for this story stressed the importance of good town-and-gown relationships to make these projects work, and the best way to forge those may be the push for improved on-campus student housing. 

Many of Greater Boston’s universities have developments underway both on and away from their central campuses, and some argue the construction could help tackle the region’s housing shortage while boosting student performance. Student housing projects are being pursued across the region from Emerson College to Northeastern in the name of comfortably housing students closer to the classroom.

“If I put my city hat on, I want the colleges to house a higher percentage of their students so there is more housing in the neighborhood [for year-round residents],” Robillard said. “If I put my college hat on, we want to house a higher percentage of students because it leads to higher GPAs and students graduate.”

Boston University houses a little over 75% of its students on campus. It is underway on a program to renovate its existing housing stock, including a $100M upgrade to Myles Standish Hall, a hotel-turned-dormitory that hadn’t been renovated since it was first constructed in the 1920s. Robillard said schools find on-campus housing helps their own performance.

“I sense from all schools in Boston that we see that as contributing to our student success and graduation rate and retention,” he said. “Everything we measure our success by can be attributed back to student housing.”

Hear more from Gallop, Doherty and Robillard at Bisnow's Boston Student Housing & Higher Education event on Sept. 13 at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf.