Menino 'open' to UMass dorms

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose criticism all but finished UMass-Boston's first campaign to build dorms on Columbia Point four years ago, is now saying he's open to the prospect.

"It's not a non-starter for me," he said this week at a separate Boston Redevelopment Authority event.

With students departing for on-campus housing, affordable housing in the neighborhoods would be freed up, he said.

Menino, a UMass-Boston graduate who has also pushed for dorms at other schools in this university-rich city, said the addition of dorms to his alma mater's campus is "probably good."

Menino praised the conceptual plans UMass officials are considering to revamp some the aging and crumbling buildings, build new academic halls and parking garages, and open up Mount Vernon Street.

"I think it's a good plan. I think it's long overdue," he said. "It's a campus that really needs restructuring."

When the campus had attempted to build dorms in 2003, Menino led other local politicians in criticism, saying the chancellor at the time, Jo Ann Gora, was ignoring neighborhood residents who would be "most impacted" by dorms.

Gora has since left for Ball State University, and her successor, former Caritas Christi chief Michael Collins, laid the groundwork for dorms, in a master planning process overhauling the campus.

Keith Motley, the campus's current chancellor, picked up where Collins left off, and is due to go before the UMass Board of Trustees on Dec. 14 with the final master plan.

City Council President Maureen Feeney, who joined Menino and other elected officials locally in slamming the 2003 dorm push, had softer words this week.

"The issue of dorms is always at the forefront of any discussion," she said. But, she added, "Those buildings can't remain in their current condition."

Feeney said the issue of dorms would be addressed as it arises and she expects an open discussion. "Is it a fait accompli? I don't feel that's necessarily the case," she said.

She noted UMass officials must consider dorms as part of their master plan, and to do so otherwise would be a "huge mistake," an argument Collins raised when he first proposed a return to the discussion over dorms, calling them "living learning communities."

The comments from Menino and Feeney come as the Columbia-Savin Hill Neighborhood Association, which has opposed dorms from the beginning, gears up to reaffirm its stand against student housing.

The association meets on Monday, 7 p.m., at 275 East Cottage St.

Deirdre Habershaw, the association's president, noted that all three conceptual proposals include dorms, potentially creating a two-tiered "class system" of students who live on campus and those who don't, drastically changing the campus's urban mission.

Habershaw also criticized the addition of a hotel and conference center to the campus as "excessive," with the Doubletree Hotel up the road.

UMass officials, who said they would be sending a representative to the meeting, have said the school will remain primarily a commuter campus and anticipate no change to the urban mission. Dorms also remain a long way off, they insist, since constructing a new academic building and a new parking garage remain at the top of the priority list.

Officials also argue some students want the housing and is hoping to up its enrollment. The university is aiming to have 15,000 enrolled by 2010. The campus currently enrolls 13,000.

"From the point of view of residents, what's going to save them might ruin us," Habershaw said.

"It seems like the university is set on dorms and they don't want to change their mind bout it," she said, adding that people generally feel like they're "fighting a losing battle."

Habershaw said she would also reach out to other neighborhood associations and raised the possibility of bringing the opposition to dorms to the university system's board of trustees.

But a number of trustees, canvassed for their opinion while Motley presented them with his plans at a committee meeting last week, seemed generally receptive.

Motley laid out a plan to the trustees' academic affairs committee that included building "new academic buildings with state-of-the-art teaching and learning spaces and [providing] a variety of housing options, including, but not limited to, on-campus residence halls."

The 22-member board's chair, Stephen Tocco, told trustees he felt it was a "great document."

"I'm not uncomfortable with dorms," said Tocco, the former chair of the state Board of Higher Education.

The UMass board's vice chair, Robert Manning, whom Gov. Deval Patrick is reportedly trying to install as the new chair, also offered full-throated support.

"We believe in Keith and think his vision is fantastic," he said after the meeting.

Some were more cautious. "I think we'll need to give it careful consideration and collect all the data" on dorms, said trustee Matthew Carlin.

Other trustees, while sounding notes of support, raised the question of financing the dorms. "That's always the issue," said trustee Kenneth MacAfee.

Financing of dorms became an issue in May 2003, when then-Gov. Mitt Romney refused to allow UMass to raise funds for the project, leading to UMass trustees voting to remove the project from the university system's capital plan.

The move was meant to appease Romney, who was locked in a bitter battle with then-UMass President William Bulger. The fight eventually led to Bulger's ouster.

Since then, the UMass board has been filled up with new appointments from Romney and Patrick, who picked up five seats just this fall.

Habershaw pointed out that none of the trustees, except for the student trustees elected by their campuses, live in the Boston area. "I'm sure it's easy to say, 'Sure, put dorms here,' when you don't live here," Habershaw said.