Proposal for expansion in Nahant faces backlash


File photo by Dylan Shen

Students and community members tour the Marine Science Center in Nahant in October 2016.

Lukas Illion, news correspondent

Northeastern unveiled three revised proposals for expansion at the Marine Science Center, or MSC, in Nahant during a Nahant town meeting on Dec. 11. Despite Northeastern’s best efforts, many residents are not welcoming the new design proposal.

The designs are meant to minimize the intrusiveness of the approximately 60,000-square-foot expansion. Northeastern originally proposed a design in February that was sharply criticized by the residents of Nahant, which is roughly 17 miles north of NU’s main campus.

“Over the intervening 9 months, the university met with many Nahant citizens and community groups and held several individual meetings with members of the board of selectmen to solicit feedback,” said Michael Ferrari, the assistant vice president for external affairs. The university channeled this feedback into three redesigned plans for the expansion that residents could choose from.

Ferrari emphasized that each proposed alternative is designed to blend into the surrounding landscape, especially when the vegetation is at its fullest in the spring and summer.

However, the visual aspect of the expansion is not the main concern for many residents. For Christoph Wald, a Nahant resident since 1998, the scale of the project is more disconcerting.

“Eastpoint is a 23-acre open space in this town. It’s the largest open space,” Wald said. “Why would you want to put that size of a building, in which science is done that could be done somewhere else, in the only open space in a small town … other than the fact that it has a nice view of Boston?”

Lifelong resident Michelle Capano pointed to the original transaction agreement between Nahant and NU.

“We only have so much open space and we need to preserve it.” Capano said. “They acquired the property to be a natural resource area and they are not fulfilling that. I have a moral compass issue with that.”

Spatial issues are also a concern for residents. According to Keep Nahant Wild, a volunteer group dedicated to the conservation of Nahant’s wildlife habitats and open space, the MSC already holds the record for the largest ratio of facility area to town area on the east coast. The new addition would add 60,000 square feet on top of that.

How the school plans to use the MSC’s new facilities is important to Nahant residents as well. Peter Rogal, a Nahant resident since 2004, said Northeastern stated at a town meeting in February that the new expansion would consist of “dry buildings,” which are buildings that don’t need water from the ocean. It is unclear if the new designs will draw sea water, but Rogal said if they do not, Northeastern should not expand the facility at Nahant and instead should build a facility in nearby Lynn or Salem. This suggestion has been supported by Rep. Seth Moulton.  

Residents in opposition to the project are both disappointed in and worried about Northeastern’s transparency towards the expansion.

“The history of Northeastern in Nahant has not been discussions with the public. There may be closed-door discussions that we don’t know about,” Rogal said.

Since the December town meeting, some Nahant residents, including atmospheric scientist Susan Solomon, have submitted a long list of incisive questions about the proposed expansion to Northeastern. The residents are still awaiting responses from the university.

Residents are worried that Northeastern will mislead them based on negative reactions to the university’s expansions in Burlington and Roxbury. Rogal said Northeastern has used “mission creep” in these scenarios, and is attempting to do the same thing in Nahant.

“What if Northeastern comes back in five years and says they wanna build 25,000 more square feet?,” he said.

Ferrari said this expansion is an “isolated initiative.”

“It’s really about enhancing [the MSC’s] capacity and bringing additional expertise to bear on some of these most pressing challenges around the coastal communities,” Ferrari said.

Perhaps most significantly, expansion opponents feel a deep symbolic connection to Nahant that they feel would be threatened if Northeastern’s project proceeds, Rogal said.

“When we have a threat like this it becomes a very visceral thing … It’s a game-changer for most residents,” Rogal said.

The Nahant Historical Society, or NHS, highlights this point on its website’s homepage:“We must keep the essential being of our town … our history, our scenic beauty, our sense of community … We strongly believe any further expansion of the Marine Science Center will irrevocably change not only the scenic beauty of East Point but also the essential being of our small town.”

Despite the stalemate, the university remains optimistic “that working with town officials and with community groups, that a sort of shared consensus can be reached that’ll be a win-win for both [their] teaching and research mission and also the town,” Ferrari said.

The residents in opposition to the expansion are also confident.

“It’s a David and Goliath story,” Rogal said. “Sometimes if your adversary is small and tenacious, it’s a tougher fight than you expect.”

Indeed, the close-knit town is swinging above its weight class. And with neither side showing signs of backing down any time soon, the deciding factor in the conflict may be financial.

“There may be things that we can’t control such as litigation that could be initiated by the town or by property abutters. But … It’s hard to know what sort of impact prolonged legal entanglement would have on the resources of the town. We certainly would prefer to figure out a way for us to reach an agreement that would benefit all parties and allow us to continue to be a strong supporter of the Nahant community going forward,” Ferrari said.

While Northeastern respects residents’ concerns, the university said the research being conducted at the MSC is valuable to Nahant.

“Nahant is not unique in that it is facing challenges from sea level rise, from storm surge, from warming ocean temperatures, and the work that we are doing right there has the potential to benefit the community directly,” Ferrari said.

Nahant residents, though, feel that it is not really up to the university to decide what’s best for the community. While the residents admire Northeastern’s current research, they feel no obligation to let Northeastern build more on their land.

“We are not talking about kicking Northeastern out of this town,” Rogal said. “We’re talking about no expansion.”