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BU's Billion-Dollar Master Plan Is Light On New Housing, To Neighbors' Chagrin

Boston University rolled out its draft $1B institutional master plan in October, which details its development and investments for the next decade, and although it has been widely accepted for its commitment to sustainability and donations to the community, neighborhood and city officials said they wish the plan was more aggressive in its efforts to combat the student housing crisis both on and off campus.

The plan includes five keystone projects but adds no new units that hadn't already been approved, instead focusing its student housing efforts on renovating Warren Towers, the 1,800-bed freshman residence hall on Commonwealth Avenue.

Boston University plans to renovate its Warren Towers student residence hall in the next decade.

“Student housing is very important to us and very important to the city and to our community,” Derek Howe, senior vice president of operations at BU, told Bisnow in an interview. “We feel that Warren Towers is really in need of renovation, and what we’ve seen is that by renovating it and investing in our current inventory, we will continue the progress of retaining students on campus.”

Sixty-nine percent of BU’s student body is housed on campus, with the other 31% either living at home or off campus in neighborhoods and towns like Fenway, Allston and Brookline, according to the draft IMP. BU said it hopes its investment in its current housing stock will keep students on campus.

The Warren Towers renovation is the first project in the draft IMP for its Charles River campus covering 2023-2033, with plans to renovate the towers to provide air conditioning and updated facilities. The residence hall makes up 15% of BU’s current undergraduate housing inventory.

“It would be the perfect place to invest and give those students that first-year experience to make them want to stay in the housing system for the next four years,” Howe said at a Nov. 21 task force meeting about the IMP.

IMPs are reviews required for hospitals, colleges and universities spanning more than 150K SF. They are a plan used to look at an institution’s existing property and future development within a specific time frame, typically a decade. 

BU’s Charles River campus spans over 113 acres and 12.5M SF, including residential, office, and graduate and undergraduate buildings. It is sandwiched between growing neighborhoods like Fenway and Kenmore.

The draft IMP also includes the renovation of Mugar Memorial Library, as well as the development of a new science and engineering research building, the Pardee School of Global Studies and a previously approved, 523-bed redevelopment of the former Commonwealth Armory site into student housing.

The reach BU has in the community is one that politicians and community leaders hope it can use to help address certain issues like housing, transportation and employment.

“There are some very critical issues in the city of Boston that we look forward to our institutional partners like BU to partner with us on,” City Councilor Kenzie Bok said at the meeting. “One of those issues, of course, is the housing crunch.” 

Boston University has laid out seven areas of development for the Charles River campus in its proposed IMP, including five major development and renovation projects.

The shortage of new student housing in the draft IMP is concerning for some, as Fenway faces a shortage of residential space. The growing number of students moving off campus created issues for families that want to stay in the neighborhood.

“If I was a landlord, I could have a steady stream of students renting out my apartment that is close to the university,” Suneeth John, deputy director at Fenway Community Development Corp., told Bisnow. “This pushes out residents, like families who need to stay.”

Last year, BU and Northeastern received a record number of applications, leading both to scramble to find housing for students, The Scope reported. This year, apartment vacancy was at an all-time low, as university students tried to find off-campus housing, pricing out others in the community.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency gave the green light to Northeastern in March to add 900 more beds to two of its existing residence halls in an effort to house students after the school enrolled 1,000 more than expected, the Boston Business Journal reported.

“BU is an enormous institution with a tremendous number of staff and financial capacity,” said Richard Giordano, director of policy and community planning at the Fenway CDC. “One of the ways they manage to house their students is they bought up a lot of the neighborhood that has surrounded them.”

Howe said that with this new IMP, the university is focused on creating density on campus and better connecting with the neighborhoods the campus touches.

“We don’t want to do things that are encroaching on people’s neighborhoods,” Howe said. "We are kind of looking within our own footprint and thinking about how we will grow internally."

The university is also planning to build a new 355K SF science and engineering building on Commonwealth Avenue and the 70K SF Pardee School of Global Studies on Bay State Road. The university’s IMP is not the only way it has influenced the community — most notably with development in Kenmore Square.

Related Beal bought four buildings from BU in 2016 to develop One Kenmore Square.

“As we know, Kenmore Square and the Fenway are experiencing a significant boom in development,” Cecilia Nardi, director of community relations at BU, said at a meeting about the IMP. “We continue to be mindful of how these projects relate to our longer-term vision of the Charles River Campus.”

In 2016, Related Beal purchased four buildings from Boston University in the square as part of a major redevelopment, including one of the square’s most iconic landmarks, the Citgo sign. The university had partnered with Related because it wanted an update to the square through new development.

“From the onset, as our partner, we worked with BU to really re-envision what we believed were kind of the front teeth of their Charles River campus,” Related Beal Vice President Alex Provost said in an interview. “We’ve had many meetings about what they wanted to see.”

The development, which is scheduled to be completed sometime in the middle of 2023, spans two buildings and 263K SF and will house the international headquarters for Whoop, a fitness tech company, in one building and Gritstone bio Inc. in the second

“Our site and One Kenmore Square as a whole was the first step in a lot of that planning that [BU has] undertaken in the last five years,” Provost said.

As BU moves closer to getting its IMP approved by the BPDA, Howe said that input from the city and the community is crucial as it plans for the next decade so that it creates opportunities not just for students but also for the community.

“We always want to align our goals with what the city is looking to do as well,” Howe said. “We try to do that whether it's environmental issues, public health, policy or access issues.”