Rifts begin to show in Columbia Point planning

Last Thursday's public planning meeting for Columbia Point brought forth a plethora of details, a smidgeon of creative vision, and a hint of old grudges slowly rising out of the old calf pasture.

The Columbia Point Master Planning Task Force will eventually create guidelines for future development on the point, including the transformation of the Bayside Expo Center into a mixed-use village of rental housing and retail stores; several academic and dormitory buildings at UMass Boston; and a yet-to-be-determined development above and or near the MBTA's JFK/UMass station on the red line.

After months of task force meetings that mainly fed information about what developers want to build, traffic patterns, and other challenges, around 60 participants were asked to walk around the Harbor Point Task Force's community hall and write their own priorities on large sheets of paper.

As the magic marker lines dried on phrases like "Don't wall or gate off the waterfront," "There is already way too much open space," and "too much community involvement in the process will create a mediocre development," a friendly but pointed debate broke out between Fields Corner Civic's Tom Gannon and UMass-Boston's Vice Chancellor Arthur Bernard over dorms.

Gannon, a UMass graduate, argued that dorms would mark a departure from the school's mission to educate the working class. Bernard said UMass was not aiming to draw in more out-of-state students.

The same debate entered the record as some wrote "No dorms" on the sheets around the room and others countered with "We want dorms!"

Meanwhile a number of Harbor Point residents expressed fears that UMass will likely use the actual structure of the proposed dorms to wall off the Harbor Point housing development from the campus.

"Seems like we're going to get boxed in from what I'm hearing," said Cecil Murphy, president of the Harbor Point Community Task Force. "They should have more concern for the people already living here as opposed to attracting other people to the area."

Director Orlando Perilla said the task force has hired an architect to help interpret UMass plans and create suggestions for how UMass might build a more inviting campus, perhaps by locating the playing fields closer to Harbor Point, instead of the dorms. He said the community's fears derive from a history of separation between Harbor Point and the university that date back to the old Columbia Point Development that was demolished in 1986 and 1987. Last year, tensions flared when the university's Dr. Stephanie Hartwell, while a guest on David Boeri's Radio Boston on WBUR, said Columbia Point was an area "one might avoid," because of a "couple of shootings". In a letter responding to the comments, Perilla noted that, since 1989, there had been only three gun incidents on the point, two of which occurred when security guards were accidentally shot while cleaning their weapons.

"We feel like UMass is saying 'Education is not for you, it's for people from other parts of the city,'" said Perilla.

Despite the UMass hubbub, the task force's chair Don Walsh said that the university might be the least affected by the Boston Redevelopment Authority guidelines that will eventually come out of the planning process.

"The state is exempt from the master plan," said Walsh. "I'm not a supporter of the dorms but I don't think the task force will have any say in it."

Walsh said he is more focused on traffic impacts, zoning and density. Kosciusko Circle is one of the biggest problems, he said, and heavier use of the point will require fixing it and addressing other infrastructure needs such as electricity, water and sewer.

Ideas to that end included improving "the chute" that carries cars from Columbia Road to Mt. Vernon St., eliminating Day Boulevard's connection to the traffic circle, and remaking Morrissey as a "true urban boulevard."

Another faction, notably including Joe Sammons of Geiger Gibson Health Center, is pushing the need preserve and create affordable housing. Yet another trend is agitating for pedestrian and cycling amenities, energy conservation, and green building.

"This is a huge area and it could a model for the rest of the country," said Valerie Harms, a Harbor Point resident.

Task Force members will mull over the opinions collected at last week's meeting on May 29, 5 p.m., at the Boston College High School. The meeting is open to the public. A second community-wide meeting will be held on Saturday, June 14, 9 a.m. to noon at the same locale. On the agenda for the latter is "future visioning."