art vows to scrutinize UMass on dormitories; Affordable housing 'left out' of Columbia Point planning

As presentations from developers and city planners wind down and the floor opens up for discussion, differing opinions continue to heat up the cauldron of the Columbia Point Master Plan Task Force. The task force will help the Boston Redevelopment Authority create comprehensive development guidelines for the point, where a handful of large projects are imminent.

Spilling over from a May 15 community-wide meeting, dormitories at UMass Boston and affordable housing led the list of issues to wrangle with at last Thursday's task force meeting, followed closely by density and sustainability. State Sen. Jack Hart highlighted the importance of the project as an example of smart-growth.

"One of the few things Romney did right, and you will rarely hear me say that, is smart growth," Hart said. "You're going to see more and more people over the years moving back into the downtown area."

But with Hart in the room, questions quickly turned to UMass Boston's plan to build dormitories for the first time in the school's history.

"The university is talking about it as if it was a fait accompli," said Paul Nutting, a member of the task force from the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association.

"The city does not have any land use authority over UMass," said Tad Read, the process's project manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "However, they have agreed to work with us. They have been sending representatives to these meetings. We certainly plan to make recommendations to UMass on the relationship between UMass and the rest of the point, so it is appropriate to include dormitories in that."

"They need to come out to the neighborhood and convince them it's a good thing," Hart said. "Until they do that, it is not a done deal.

If legislation needs to be drawn up to ensure UMass does just that, he would pursue it, Hart said. For years, Hart, Council President Maureen Feeney and state Rep. Marty Walsh have pressed the university to involve the community in a fundamental decision: dorms or no dorms.

"UMass is committed to working in collaboration with the task force and the BRA as part of the planning process," said UMass director of communications DeWayne Lehman. "We welcome the feedback we will receive from task force members and will add it to our own plan."

Lehman said outreach to the surrounding communities would continue in the fall but also said that at present dorms are in the master plan. UMass spokesman Will Kilburn emphasized that at least one academic building and great deal of infrastructure work would precede any dorm construction that might occur.

Affordable housing

Highlighting another disagreement on the task force that needs thrashing out, Joseph Sammons, director of the Geiger Gibson Health Center, took issue with a list of "Master Plan Principles" handed out at the meeting. Somehow, although Sammons has repeatedly brought up the issue along with Orlando Perilla from the Harbor Point Task Force, affordable and inclusionary housing did not make the list. Instead, mixed-use development, connection making, and maximizing views topped the list.

"We need those units to be affordable," Sammons said of Corcoran Jennison Company's plan for a new "neighborhood" on the site of the Bayside Expo Center.

When asked to define what they were asking for, Sammons, Perilla and Father George Carrigg of St. Christopher's Church on the point indicated something similar to the mix of the Harbor Point development, which is currently around 30 percent affordable. All new large developments are required to offer at least 15 percent of their units as affordable by the BRA.

After the meeting, Joe Corcoran, one of the founders of Corcoran Jennison, said that federal funding and low-income subsidies played a big part in funding the Harbor Point Development when his company built it in the 80s, but that funding for affordable housing has dried up since then.

"Since Reagan they've been getting out of the business entirely," Corcoran said. "They're stingy in the allocations. Eighty-five [market] to 15 percent [affordable] is a ratio that seems to work. Once you start trying to do more you need to bridge the gap somewhere."

"The funding environment is very different from when Harbor Point was first developed, that required a substantial amount of federal subsidies" agreed Aaron Gornstein, director of the Citizen's Housing and Planning Association, in a phone interview. "It's highly competitive. For every application, the state's probably going to fund one out of four. It's understandable that they would want a higher percentage of affordable housing. It can be accomplished in today's funding environment, but it's difficult."

Corcoran Jennison is chomping at the bit to submit plans for the project for the city's Article 80 large project review process, but has been asked to wait by the BRA, which would oversee the process. At a Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association meeting on Monday, Corcoran's Jim Gribaudo said the company hoped to begin soliciting support from local civic associations for the project in the fall.