Master Plan community conversations continue tomorrow

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By Jenna Duncan, News Staff
Conversations between Northeastern officials and members of surrounding communities will continue tomorrow evening, following last week’s meeting with about 50 angry residents of Mission Hill and nearby neighborhoods.

Heated audience members made it clear to four university representatives that until the university builds the two dorms that were promised in the last Institutional Master Plan (IMP), they would not recommend the university get an extension for the formation of a new master plan. The dorms promised in 2000 haven’t been constructed because of the economic downturn, leaving Northeastern without money to build, officials said.

“Economic uncertainty is often a reason for requesting an extension,” said Senior Project Manager Gerald Autler of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), who will review the 2010 IMP. “It makes more sense to extend the current IMP than to do a new one without community input. They will need time to prepare the plan, so they can examine their commitments and needs in this era of financial austerity.”

Northeastern will not be penalized, Autler said. Additionally, the university does not need community approval for the plan to pass, though it is highly recommended. Until officials create and have a new plan approved, the university can’t request any new permits from the city or even make renovations.

The Northeastern representatives were Larry Brophy, associate director of government relations, Bob Gittens, vice president for public affairs, Mike Armini, vice president for external affairs and Jack McCarthy and senior vice president of administration and finance.

Northeastern officials explained that after they borrowed money for the construction of International Village and the economic crisis hit, the university had to reevaluate. They had accumulated about $820 million worth of debt, about the former size of the endowment, which is now closer to $520 million, McCarthy said. He added that the university isn’t able to take out any more loans for construction on Building K, a 600-bed dorm to be built east of the Curry Student Center, or other housing projects at this time.

“We are in complete agreement with the community that we need to house more of our students in supervised settings,” Armini said after the meeting. “The question right now given financial realities, is how to achieve that.”

However, construction is about to occur at the Burlington campus, a point residents raised. Officials said the construction was being completely paid for by a donor, and would be used for research on homeland security.

“He’s 91 [years old] and wants to have an impact on his alma matter and the country,” McCarthy explained. “Either he [funds] it 100 percent or we don’t do anything.”

Members of the community, including Massachusetts State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez and City Council President Mike Ross, insisted the university has not followed through on plans such as the construction of Building K or taken action on community demands and promises for the past three years, despite many talks with the community about the plans.

“The commitment was that you weren’t going to look at academic, research or office space until you had at least [built] those three dorms,” said Patricia Flaherty, who has lived in Mission Hill for 27 years. “Until you meet your priorities from the last negotiation, we don’t want to talk about new needs that the institution has.”

A few students attended the meeting, including Lucas Rose, a senior business major and Student Government Association senator, who said he thinks talks should continue and both parties should negotiate.

“I think the big thing is there’s got to be a compromise because there’s so many extremes that are being dealt with,” he said. “At the end of the day what needs to be realized is these communities are going to have to interact together. It doesn’t matter how many dorms they build, students are going to want to live off campus.”

Community residents insisted that President Joseph Aoun meet with a small group of community members so he could understand how the situation is effecting Mission Hill. The officials said they would discuss that possibility with Aoun.

Some community members raised other issues with the university, such as Northeastern’s low rate of admitting high school students from the community, as well as not providing many jobs for local youth. University officials said that although they cannot guarantee admission to anyone, there are scholarships in place, and a pilot program to support Boston Public School students in attending college. They also want to continue to interact with the community by funding job programs and providing jobs.

“BRA meetings and NU meetings have raised a number of issues, primarily focused on providing additional student housing,” Autler said. “In these negotiations, if the community is told they need to wait longer, they will want good reasons … and to see benefits to the neighborhood.”