Back to School…at a Five-Star Hotel? Some Colleges Surprise Residents with Hotel Plans

Dan Murphy, Lauren Bennett and Seth Daniel

Plans for college and university students have begun to settle into the neighborhoods this week, surprising some and causing all to pause and think about what such a massive amount of students in hotels, residential apartments and even the Boston Symphony Orchestra building might mean for quality of life – whether good or bad or both.

So far, Emerson College and Northeastern University have been the most active in Bay Village, St. Botolph, Fenway and the Back Bay – securing a variety of locations for students to live and to take classes.

A representative from Emerson College told the Sun that for the fall semester, it hopes to house 208 residents and eight resident assistants at the W Boston hotel on Stuart Street in Bay Village “pending City of Boston approval.” The students will live in rooms on floors five through 14, and other than “Emerson student hotel residents,” no other visitors will be permitted on those floors.

“This decision has been made in order to de-densify housing on Emerson’s Boston campus,” the College said. “The College considered a number of options and selected the W Boston hotel for its close proximity to campus, and its ability and readiness to support Emerson students residing there this Fall.”

Northeastern University has announced that rooms at both the Westin Copley Place Hotel and the Midtown Hotel have been reserved for students this coming fall. Additionally, 147 apartments in the Fenway and Roxbury have been leased through the university’s master-lease program, according to a letter to the community from John Tobin, Vice President of City and Community Engagement at Northeastern University. He also said that the university has made an agreement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to lease space in the Cohen Wing at Symphony Hall for additional student dining space.

“Our students will be expected to adhere to all Northeastern on-campus housing policies, practice social distancing and wear face covering in public places,” Tobin wrote. “The students in both the Westin Hotel and the Midtown Hotel will also be monitored by Northeastern residential staff.”

Tobin also told the Sun that he’d be “happy to set up Zoom calls to talk with neighborhood associations, leaders, and elected officials about what the plans are,” and said that Northeastern had participated in the City Council’s recent hearing on the reopening of colleges and universities.

Martyn Roetter, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB), sees how housing students from the area’s colleges and universities at hotels could be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“It seems to me in the case of hotels in particular, it’s a win-win, up-the-losses kind of a deal,” Roetter said, and even if the costs for student housing are reduced from regular rates,  “Hotels will welcome a guaranteed stream of income for several months, if not the whole school year.”

And some Back Bay businesses could also benefit from the influx of more students into the neighborhood because, as Roetter said, “Students contribute in a significant way to economy and the revenue of certain kinds of businesses.”

What concerns Roetter, members of NABB and Back Bay residents most, however, is how students might behave outside of the hotels they will be living in, as well as how their behavior could result in increased COVID-19 infection rates.

“Our main concern is the actions of the students on the streets and in areas where [the schools] can’t control,” he said. “There are more risky things that could get out of control or there would be more infections than there would be otherwise.”

Still, Roetter remains confident that “good channels of communications” between colleges and universities, the city and civic organizations like NABB “could help deal with issues when they arise in as cooperative a manner as possible.”

Bethany Patten, president of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, anticipates both risks and advantages – economic, as well as social – of returning college students living in hotels.

“The economic risks are of course that universities are needing to bear the cost of utilizing increased external spaces, which puts a strain on an already strained sector,” Patten wrote.  “The economic benefits are that there is more revenue to the hotels, and area businesses that keeps them viable.”

But Patten doesn’t expect that an influx of students would result in a boon for businesses because she doesn’t think retail will recover anytime soon and most schools have required meal plans for students, which would discourage them from dining out.

Meanwhile, Patten said she hopes that colleges and universities would opt to house their students at local hotels, rather than at national chains like the W. “The only benefit to our community when universities go with a multinational chain is the jobs, which of course is both good for unemployment, but disproportionately affects underserved and underrepresented higher-risk communities,” she wrote.

Patten added that she believes “universities are really trying to be good citizens and contribute to the common good,” and that BVNA leadership is scheduled to meet with representatives from Emerson College soon to learn more about their plans for the fall.

“I can’t imagine that the students in the hotels will be any more or less supervised than they are in dorms, or are not when they live in private housing,” Patten wrote. “All college campuses have resident assistants that manage underage parties, and other behaviors. In a pandemic, I can only assume these roles will take on greater behavior monitoring responsibility. I’m not sure why there is an assumption they will be unsupervised. In fact, a well supervised group of students in a hotel seems even more safe than individuals in a hotel who can chose how they want to behave regarding health and safety.”

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) said it had posted guidance on its website about plans for local universities and colleges. The BPDA also said the matter had been discussed by Mayor Martin Walsh in a daily briefing last week.

The BPDA said institutions are required to engage with residents about their plans, protocols and how the housing or hotels would be used.

“Every institution that requests to utilize off-campus spaces for temporary student housing is required to engage nearby residents and civic associations about their plans and address potential concerns,” read a statement from the BPDA. “Institutions must provide a way for residents to reach out directly if an issue arises. The BPDA will be working closely with institutions to ensure that this process happens prior to any students moving into a temporary off-campus housing site.”

A Zoom call for the St. Botolph Neighborhood Association (SBNA) has been set up for next week, Aug. 11, with Northeastern’s Tobin. On that call will be State Rep. Jon Santiago and Councilor Ed Flynn. The announcement from SBNA indicated they would talk about use of the Midtown Hotel, and other locations in the area.

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