Awaiting Amazon HQ2 And In Need Of Housing, Boston Finally Embraces Its Universities
Frosty relations between Greater Boston’s universities and year-round residents have been icy for generations, but they are beginning to thaw as recognition grows that higher education can bring jobs and solve a housing crisis.
“The dialogue over the last 10 years has evolved tremendously, and we’ve gone beyond the conversation of never wanting to see college students with red Solo cups,” Boston Planning & Development Agency Director of Development Review Jonathan Greeley said. “It has become a much more collaborative process.”
From Mission Hill to Brighton and even in Harvard Square, the relationship among Boston’s institutes of higher learning and the city’s year-round residents have been less than stellar. Bostonians have complained about late-night noise and move-in congestion from the area’s universities, but a growing issue has been how students living off campus are taking much-needed places to live from full-time residents.
The region’s institutes of higher education have responded by providing more on-campus housing for students, freeing up residential units for Boston's permanent residents. But the city is also accepting that its ongoing economic boom isn’t just a fluke.
“I think people fundamentally realize Boston is far better for its colleges and universities,” Greeley said. “We are not home to GE or large Amazon expansions without those kinds of things. We wouldn’t have created the diverse economy we have without that kind of resource.”
General Electric cited the talent pool created by the many universities in Greater Boston as its motive to move its headquarters to the city. Boston also receives high marks in its ongoing pursuit of Amazon HQ2 thanks to having top-ranked universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its backyard, and residents recognize the schools are key in sustaining the region’s job growth.
Relations have also improved in part thanks to universities being more candid with their development plans. Boston requires any medical or educational institution larger than 100K SF within city limits to provide the city and neighbors with an Institutional Master Plan. The 10-year snapshot gives the community an early peek at the organization’s future plans to build or lease space in the city.
Greeley said Northeastern University’s mix of residential and academic building growth is an example of being able to expand while also appealing to neighbor concerns.
“The universities that are most successful in that dialogue are relatively transparent in what they’re trying to do and push forward a multi-pronged approach,” he said.
Across the Charles River in Cambridge, MIT works under different government guidelines. Instead of working with a body like the Boston Planning & Development Agency, MIT works directly with all nine voting members of the Cambridge City Council. Given the city body’s heightened role in planning and zoning, MIT co-Director of Government and Community Relations Sarah Gallop stressed the importance of consistent collaboration with the city council, as well as the four neighborhoods that directly surround the university.
“We feel a real authentic sense of responsibility to make sure we understand their needs and concerns,” she said. “The way we do it is to meet and meet and meet and meet.”
Gallop said the university stopped counting after 100 community meetings while it pursued its Kendall Square Initiative, and MIT has already surpassed 80 meetings for its plan to redevelop the Volpe Transportation Center. While it may seem like a relatively new concept in Greater Boston, collaboration and improved town-and-gown relations like this are part of a broader trend CBT principal Christopher Hill sees across New England.
“It’s a different world. Towns and gowns are working together to mutually benefit each other,” he said. “There’s more collaboration today than the old model of ‘you take care of your part, and we’ll take care of our part.'”
Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is a leading force in revitalizing the heart of its New England town by purchasing several derelict buildings and renovating them for commercial uses and housing for students and faculty. In Western Massachusetts, the Town of Amherst and the University of Massachusetts Amherst formed their joint Town Gown Steering Committee in 2013 to tackle mutual interests like housing and economic development.
Back in Boston, Greeley noted it isn’t always a case of town-and-gown harmony. There are still plenty of tense moments with competing interests and agendas where a university may want to pursue an academic building to placate professors while the surrounding neighborhood prefers more student housing. But Gallop said it is better to keep an open mind and respond favorably to the community.
“If you really feel like you have to fight back on something, you need to think hard about it if you are a university, because that same department you are fighting against? You’re going to need something from them in two months,” she said.