Northeastern shrinks proposed apartment construction after critique from Boston residents


Northeasten University Task Force presentation

Northeastern presented a revised 840 Columbus Ave. design to the task force and Boston Planning and Development Agency Jan. 28, 2021.

Riley Robinson, projects editor

Northeastern University will reduce the size of the proposed apartment building at 840 Columbus Ave., after Roxbury residents pushed back on the original design. Previous plans said the new LightView-like apartment complex — built in partnership with American Campus Communities, or ACC — would house 975 student beds. The new plan will build 800 student beds. The university presented the revised proposal to the Northeastern University Task Force and the Boston Planning and Development Agency, or BPDA, at a virtual public meeting Jan. 28.

Northeastern plans to balance this new construction with a promise to sell some student housing properties in the Fenway neighborhood and will keep the same planned net gain of 175 beds. Kathy Spiegelman, university vice president and chief of campus planning and development, said Northeastern has not determined which Fenway properties it will sell and is working with Fenway neighborhood organizations to determine how these properties will return to the market.

“I don’t want this to become a Fenway versus Roxbury issue at all. Many of us on the task force have been pushing for years to have student housing developed in the core of the campus,” said Richard Giordano, director of policy and community planning at the Fenway Community Development Corporation. “In the Fenway now, we have at least 3,000 students — 6,000 if you count students from other schools. I don’t want this to seem like Fenway benefits and Roxbury loses. We’re in a tough place here.”

Several residents who attended the meeting expressed concerns that the new ACC housing would be significantly more expensive than the housing phased out in Fenway and would not succeed in keeping students on campus.

“It’s clear that no matter what we build as new housing, it will probably never be priced the same as older buildings that don’t have to be on the cost of the new construction or don’t have the same amenities,” Spiegelman said.

Gerald Autler, a senior project manager at the BPDA, responded to those concerns by saying students showed significant demand for LightView leases, maxing out capacity soon after it opened.

Northeastern officials announced two local entrepreneurs had joined as consultants on the 840 Columbus Ave. proposal: Hansy Better Barraza, co-founder of Studio Luz Architects and Jae’da Turner, founder of Black Owned Bos. Turner is also a Northeastern alum.

Barraza presented her revised designs for the building’s 17,000 square foot community space, which would comprise almost the entire first floor. Barraza and university officials said they are considering a range of public amenities — including performance space, a library and areas for retail pop-ups or microbusinesses —  after meeting with dozens of community organizations. They said they are also considering various community programming ideas, such as yoga and dance classes.

Roxbury residents attending the meeting raised several concerns about Northeastern’s plan: The building’s height would loom over the neighborhood and block sunlight; it wouldn’t effectively combat a housing shortage; and it wouldn’t create jobs for people from marginalized communities. They said Northeastern had failed to deliver on previous promises to benefit Roxbury residents.

“All of the things you say you want to do should already be in place,” said Louis Elisa, a member of the task force. “And that’s what gives me pause.”

Elisa also expressed concern that Roxbury residents would never feel truly welcome in a Northeastern space, citing his own experiences passing through campus.

“Moving through the campus is not as easy as one would like it to be, being interrupted and intercepted by security asking where you’re going,” he said. “It’ll be the same thing on that 27-foot easement that you’ve put there … If they’re not a part of the school environment, there will be challenges.”

Northeastern’s next step in the construction process is to file a Draft Project Impact Report with the BPDA. The university hopes to break ground in August of this year and open the facilities the summer of 2024.

Autler concluded the meeting with a reminder the process is far from over.

“This project is not approved. And until it’s approved by not only the BPDA board, but also the Boston Zoning Commission … then it doesn’t move forward,” Autler said. “The challenges are clear, but that’s the goal of every process, to try to build consensus around the project that can get support in front of our board and the zoning commission.”