Northeastern Expansion at the Heart of Town and Gown Issues

Northeastern University

By Sam Peters

Since 1990, Northeastern University has almost doubled in size. For decades, the university was a commuter school on the south side of the Green Line’s Arborway branch, but now it extends into Roxbury, Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods, occupying 73 acres of land.  It is show no signs of slowing down and that is ruffling the feathers of many of its neighbors.

As a part of Northeastern’s ten year master plan announced in 2013, the university proposed $2 billion in construction across three million square feet of university land, which would create additional student housing as well as a new Science and Engineering Building on Columbus Avenue. By reducing the number of students it has accepted by almost half, the university has been able to build more dormitories to accommodate students on campus. With just over 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the university has gone from 3,000 dorm beds on campus in 1990 to more than 7,000 today. By 2023, the university hopes to house more than 75 percent of its students on campus.

As the private, research-based institution continues to spread its footprint beyond Huntington Avenue, rent prices in the neighborhood surrounding Northeastern have steadily increased. Due to the lofty rates of living in the dorms, students often opt for living off campus after their freshman year because it can be less expensive. The more than 12,000 students living off campus create a huge demand for property in Mission Hill.

According to PadMapper, an online tool that maps apartment rental prices throughout the country, a three bedroom apartment on Tremont Street was listed at $2,700 per month in 2013 and is now listed at $4,400 per month, a 60 percent increase in just two years.

“It’s gotten almost to a crisis point,” said Bruce Bickerstaff, 67, who has been a resident of Mission Hill for 10 years. “The rent prices on the outlying borders of Northeastern have increased exponentially. The university looks the other way instead of drilling down and looking at the impact [its expansion] will have on the community.”

Residents like Bickerstaff suggest that the university should lower the prices of on campus housing in order to retain more students and prevent local residents from being pushed out of their homes. Student and community relations can be tense when rowdy college kids living off campus throw “drunken parties” and cause disruptions in their neighborhoods.

“Mission Hill has become a real estate wet dream, with a lot of real estate speculators renting to students,” said Pat Grady, 70, a long time renter in Mission Hill.

While the city continues to adjust as more and more students move off campus, affordable housing initiatives remain meager. According to a study conducted by the Mission Anti-Displacement Mapping Project in 2015, only seven percent of all current housing units or those under construction in Mission Hill are affordable.

“Affordable housing has drastically changed over the years due to the fact of gentrification,” said Ivana Serret, operations manager for the Action for Boston Community Development Center in Mission Hill. “A lot of the affordable housing has decreased because most of the available units are being used for students to rent or higher income individuals who are taking over the area.”

In light of the university’s expansion, residents have bemoaned a lack of communication between Northeastern and its neighbors. Residents say that the university needs to acknowledge that in a neighborhood with some of the highest poverty rates in Boston, low income families cannot afford to live in an area where rent prices keep going up.

The university held a meeting with community members earlier this year to discuss progress on dormitory commitment and community benefits, including more recreation opportunities for area residents through a $26 million investment to transform the city’s Carter Playground into a state-of-the-art athletic complex. Many residents, however, hope to see community members at university monthly meetings, even before the university takes its expansion plans to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for approval.

“It’s sort of like the university has a sense of entitlement,” said Ivelesa Rivera, 46, who has worked at the Tobin Community Center in Mission Hill for 15 years. “They feel entitled to put their students anywhere they want in the city because they are a private university, which is true, but you can’t do things without community involvement.”

According to Northeastern’s website for City and Community Affairs, the university claims to be “deeply engaged in urban life” through a variety of outreach programs. Northeastern currently collaborates with over 100 community-based organizations throughout Boston, including the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute Office of Workforce Development and Fenway High School. The university also sponsors initiatives that support local youth, providing Boston Public School graduates with scholarships and hosting a Boston Public Charter School on its campus. This past fall, the university opened Northeastern Crossing, connecting Boston residents to a variety of university resources including English-as-a-second-language classes and spaces to access Wifi.   

Still, Rivera views the university’s community initiatives as thinly disguised “peace settlements” to avoid the larger issues at hand.

“They don’t have a good history,” said Rivera. “They haven’t improved their community relations in any way, shape or form. They try small things but not anywhere near the level where they should be communicating with the community on huge projects, where we’re talking about hundreds of students infiltrating neighborhoods.”

Despite repeated requests via email and phone, the university declined to comment on its current community relations.

Local businesses, however, see the university’s expansion in a positive light. They claim that it has revamped the neighborhood and brought in students who sustain local businesses.

“Students are better customers than most people in the area,” said Greg Boyd, manager of Tremont House of Pizza, a restaurant that has been in Mission Hill since 1984. “University expansion has led to more student customers, and thus more business for us.”

Some residents also are happy that the university’s expansion has made the neighborhood safer. Crime statistic reports from the Boston Police Department indicate that between 1993 (around the time of the university’s first major expansions) and 2002, aggravated assault dropped by a substantial 67 percent in Mission Hill’s B2 district, which also encompasses Roxbury and Fenway neighborhoods. In 2010, the district saw 28 fewer total crimes.

“Mission Hill has had its share of being a high crime area,” said Grady. “Now, there’s a great many more students in the area; people are out on the streets more in the evenings and many restaurants and shops are open late.”

Ultimately, the university’s expansion may have gentrifying effects that are inevitable, while one man’s neighborhood improvement might prove another man’s eviction notice.

“This is an area that has undergone significant gentrification over the years,” said David Passafaro, 61, an employee in Mission Hill. “It’s happened all over the city and this is just a part of that growth.”


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