By Zack Sampson, News Staff
Construction crews began work last week on a 17-story residence hall behind the YMCA on Huntington Avenue, a project expected to start more than a year ago that was delayed by years of litigation and community resistance.
The YMCA of Greater Boston agreed to sell part of its real estate in 2010 to Phoenix Property Company, which arranged to build a dormitory on the site and lease it to Northeastern. The agreement included a provision allowing Northeastern to buy the building at a later time.
But residents of surrounding neighborhoods and members of the YMCA opposed the project, delaying the sale by petitioning the Boston Landmarks Commission to list the property as a landmark and by filing lawsuits that questioned the plan’s adherence to zoning procedures. The sale, formally announced in October 2010, has now closed, allowing construction to begin last week.
The residence hall, which has been referred to as GrandMarc, will house 720 beds. It was scheduled to open before the fall semester of 2013, but Northeastern now hopes construction will be finished sometime in 2014, according to John Tobin, the university’s vice president for city and community affairs.
“It’s been a process that has been drawn out far more than we anticipated or would like,” Tobin said.
The central YMCA structure will remain at 316 Huntington Ave.
The residence hall will replace the St. Botolph’s frontage, which shares many utilities with the main portion of the building, including cable and water lines. Separation work on these connections began last week, Tobin said, and could continue for up to five months. The Hastings Wing of the YMCA was also purchased by Phoenix Property Company in the deal.
After the separation is complete, Tobin said, crews will begin a demolition phase.
“That’s when the public will start to see the action down there,” he said of the area near Cullinane Hall where the work will occur.
Suffolk Construction has been hired for the job, Tobin said.
Echoing a refrain that university officials have repeated since the deal was announced, Tobin said the project is “a win for so many people.”
For Northeastern, the hall will provide hundreds of much-needed beds for a growing university with little space to expand. Northeastern made a commitment to the city in 2006 to add 1,800 beds. International Village provided 1,200 beds, and the new residence hall will cover the balance.
The YMCA has said it will use a large part of the money gained from the $21.5 million sale to renovate its existing facility, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Kelley Rice, a spokeswoman for the YMCA of Greater Boston, could not be reached for comment.
Tobin said the project will benefit YMCA members by providing upgraded facilities.
Many of those members, however, have been the most vocal opponents of GrandMarc. A group called “Save the Boston Y” was formed to fight the project.
Calvin Arey, a leader of the project’s opponents, said he hopes to launch an investigation into how the sale occurred and cleared requirements like zoning laws. Arey said this week he was in the midst of trying to start the investigation and could not elaborate on how it would be run, but he said opponents would like to see the state attorney general’s office involved in the process.
The university is currently completing a new Institutional Master Plan, which is due to the city by the end of the year, and Arey said the GrandMarc project “is a perfect example of how Northeastern should not be expanding.”
“They’re destroying a property that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, the YMCA,” he said.
Arey said a high-rise building is not appropriate for the neighborhood around the GrandMarc site.
“This was never intended to be an area for 17-story towers,” he said.
Though he acknowledged the short-term disruptions that construction may cause for YMCA members, Tobin said some people are already using the Marino Center and Northeastern’s pool during off-peak hours while the YMCA gym is closed. He said the soon-to-be renovated YMCA is also a long-term benefit for members.
“It’s going to be an inconvenience no doubt for some members of the Y,” Tobin said. “But I think in a couple years, people are going to to be head over heels for the new place.”