The Northeastern Task Force met virtually on May 24 to discuss the academic and dormitory building proposed for 840 Columbus Ave. as part of Northeastern University.
The proposed building is a 25 story building that will consist of academic, office, and community space on the first five floors, with the remaining 20 floors dedicated to about 800 student beds in the form of two, three, and four bedroom apartments.
Viktorija Abolina, Associate Vice President of Campus Planning at Northeastern University, explained that the public comment period for this project has closed, but she said that more than 100 letters have been received from students who are opposed to the project. She said that students feel that this project contributes to the “gentrification of Roxbury” and cited that they believe there is a strong need for affordable housing in the neighborhood.
“We’ve had over 50 formal and informal large and small meetings with organizations,” regarding the proposal, Abolina said, including a total of nine advisory board meetings and three interactive community workshops.
Other public comments were submitted in support of the development, citing the proposed public space and more beds for Northeastern students, which many Fenway residents have expressed support for as they would like to see more apartments in the neighborhood be returned to the general housing stock and not used for student housing.
“We just want to acknowledge that it is a rather large building,” Abolina said, adding that “it’s a fully programmed building,” however. She said that it is “not a shell,” and “it is driven very much by some of the commitments Northeastern has made…” to offer a certain amount of student housing under requirements created by Mayor Walsh for the city’s colleges and universities to do so.
The building will consist of a total of 243 student apartments, and the five lower levels will be programmed to offer “community engagement and economic development,” according to a slide, as well as “cross-cutting and innovative teaching and learning.”
The large ground floor space will focus on community space for organizations and small businesses through a “community economic development program,” according to Northeastern.
“The space will house multiple programs that will address critical needs and areas of interest expressed by the community in the following four categories: 1) educational access, 2) jobs and workforce development, 3) small business support, and 4) building capacity for existing community organizations that address economic development,” the Northeastern University webpage for the project states.
Architect David Manfredi then went through the “Urban Design Context” for the building, saying that the “footprint that is very unusual.” He said that the purpose of this design is to “push the massing away from the public realm…away from the streets” so the building does not feel as tall as it actually is.
Additionally, the massing has been reduced after hearing feedback from the Task Force and from the community as a whole.
Manfredi said that on the Tremont St. side of the building, one floor and approximately 70 apartments have been removed from a previous design. Additionally, there has been an increase in the ground floor space dedicated to community economic development that is publicly accessible.
Feedback on the original design included that it looked like “we’re building a wall,” Manfredi said. “We’ve done everything we could to break down that wall.”
He then talked about the Tremont St. and Melnea Cass Blvd. entrance, saying that the ground floor is “as transparent as possible” with “all glass below the third floor.”
He also said that “the most important thing is how you program that ground floor,” and the goal is to make it accessible for everyone.
The Melnea Cass Blvd. side will feature wide sidewalks with trees, planters, benches, and tables and chairs, and there will also be a rideshare dropoff area.
The meeting then shifted to a detailed discussion of the small businesses development portion of the proposal as well as some of the programming options for the building.
Northeastern University Campus Planner Torrey Spies said in the Q+A in response to a question about who the programs are for that “the programs are open to all our neighbors…depending on the program, their [sic] may be different target audiences (early MWBE business owners, local BPS students, small local contracting businesses, etc.)”
There were also several comments made expressing concern that the community is not being heard, as many do not support the project, and wondered if a public meeting will be held by the Boston Planning and Development Agency regarding this project. One person said in the chat that “we’ve been shut out of meetings over and over again. People want their voice to be heard.”
BPDA Project Manager Gerald Autler said in the chat that “a public hearing is a legal hearing in front of the BPDA Board to recommend approval.” He said that no public hearing has been scheduled at the BPDA Board yet. “This will only happen if and when we feel like the project has built sufficient support.”
Later, he said, “I don’t know what meetings you’ve been shut out of. There has been opportunity for public comment verbally and in writing. I have read all the comments. The Task Force members are community members and in many cases represent community organizations. We are aware that there is opposition to the project, just as we are aware there is support.”
For more information about the project as well as the full videos from the Northeastern Task Force meetings with all comments made, visit the Boston Planning and Development Agency project website at www.bostonplans.org/projects/development-projects/840-columbus-avenue.