UMass trustees debate campus re-design, dorms

Two new academic buildings, including a gleaming, state-of-the-art science facility (minus dangerous infectious diseases). Two new parking garages to replace the crumbling substructure holding up the plaza and campus. A glass façade and new entrance to the Healey Library.

And, of course, dorms.

UMass-Boston's final conceptual plan, presented to UMass trustees on the last day of fall semester classes earlier this month, calls for 1,000 beds in the first phase, while reaching at least 2,000 beds by the end of the 25-year plan.

The plan is the first major redesign since the 1970s, when the Columbia Point campus was built on Dorchester Bay, creating a brick fortress and a sprawling, barren plaza. University officials now are hoping to move towards more modern, skinny buildings with wider hallways, pedestrian walkways and more greenery outside.

The first phase of the plan includes stripping away the windswept plaza and replacing it with walkways and a new science building. An academic building could sit on the current field by the Quinn Building, a one-time site for dorms, though UMass officials say there is no defined set of buildings laid out, merely placeholders for the sake of future planning.

Student housing buildings would be placed closer to the Harbor Point apartments, where many students, numbering as many as 1,000, already reside, essentially creating what UMass officials have referred to as "de facto dorms."

The next steps for the campus include engineering how they go about bringing down the plaza and the scope of the demolition.

Some members of the 22-member board of trustees, which signs off on individual campus projects through the university system's borrowing requests, raised concerns that the plans, which will remain subject to change over the course of the next two decades, could create an "overly-residential" campus.

Trustee Jennifer Braceras asked whether it would mean "importing more suburban white kids onto campus," a notion Chancellor Keith Motley disputed, saying the focus will remain on Boston Public Schools and Boston itself. Motley noted that students come from 330 out of the 351 cities in the state, and 2,000 students come from Greater Boston.

Other trustees voiced support for the plan.

"The devil will clearly be in the details and the dollar signs," said trustee Ruben King-Shaw, Jr. He added, "There are students who would like to have a campus-like experience."

Added James Karam, a Fall River developer and former chairman of the board, "We're never serving the local community by serving a substandard product."

He told Motley: "Please don't stop dreaming."

Some faculty members expressed concerns over the layout of the academic buildings, which remain years away from being built.

"We're concerned about having too many large lecture classes called into being," said Rachel Rubin, president of the faculty staff union. "There is this push and we're concerned that we go overboard."

The final design for the campus comes after months of planning and two lightly attended meetings for the Dorchester community.

UMass officials plan to meet with the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association on Jan. 7, when a presentation on the final plan is expected. The civic association has included some of the strongest opponents of dorms, several of whom are holding their fire before the presentation.

UMass-Boston's immediate neighbors also weighed in. Secretary of State William Galvin, who runs the Massachusetts Archives in between the campus and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, wrote a letter to UMass officials and trustees in late November raising concerns that the conceptual plans would encroach on the archives and its own plans to expand.

Any construction within the parcel would hurt his office's "future ability to adequately store additional historic artifacts, papers, documents and state agency's records that make up the history of the Commonwealth," he wrote in a Nov. 29 letter.

UMass officials say they are having ongoing conversations with Galvin's office and that their plans don't invade the archives' five-acre parcel.

In an e-mailed statement, Tom Putnam, director of the JFK Library, said they were "excited" to learn about the campus's "ambitious plans."

"We look forward to working with our partners on Columbia Point and at UMass to help make this project a reality and a positive for the entire community," he said.

The plans come as the Boston Redevelopment Authority is also looking at Columbia Point.

The university's full plans, and past documents, can be viewed on UMass-Boston's website at www.umb.edu.