UMass-Boston focusing on housing options

Peninsula Apartments: UMass discussed converting these privately owned apartments on Mt. Vernon St. into university-run student housing — a first on Columbia Point.Peninsula Apartments: UMass discussed converting these privately owned apartments on Mt. Vernon St. into university-run student housing - a first on Columbia Point.UMass-Boston officials have been quietly exploring plans to create university-run student housing near its Dorchester campus, including one proposal that would have converted a privately-owned apartment building on Columbia Point into dorms.

Documents obtained by the Reporter this week show that UMass officials approached the Corcoran Jennison Companies about converting the newly-built Peninsula apartment building on Mt. Vernon Street into student housing controlled by UMass. The talks between the campus and Corcoran Jennison started last fall and ended sometime in early spring. A copy of the university's talking points for the proposal was obtained by the Reporter under a Freedom of Information Act request.

UMass-Boston officials this week stressed that the proposal did not go past the preliminary stage. The number of students was never discussed and questions remain about whether the area is properly zoned for student housing.

"We didn't feel it was a good time to move forward," said Patrick Day, UMass-Boston's vice-chancellor for student affairs.

Like many Bay State public colleges facing budget cuts, UMass-Boston is seeing an increase in enrollment, which is expected to hit 15,000 students this fall, a year ahead of schedule. The incoming number has left officials scrambling to find additional classroom space off-campus.

UMass-Boston officials have expressed hope for creating 2,000 on-campus beds by the end of the university's 25-year master plan. The campus is set to break ground on a $150 million science building in fall 2010 and open the 250,000-square foot complex by the end of 2013. Money for the project was partly allotted through a higher education borrowing bill that lawmakers passed last year.

While political opposition at City Hall and Beacon Hill to the prospect of dorms has softened since the idea was first floated seven years ago, many members of the Dorchester community remain opposed. The Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, in particular, has been vocal in its resistance to UMass-Boston's moves towards dorms. Opponents argue that the campus is shifting its attention to wealthier out-of-state students at the expense of blue-collar locals and its mission to serve them.

Some 700 students already reside on Columbia Point, placed at Corcoran Jennison's Harbor Point Apartments and its Peninsula I building through the university's office of student housing.

Corcoran Jennison officials said there isn't any arrangement for dorm use and "there was never any formal proposal."

"As you know, there are students at Harbor Point and Peninsula I and, from time to time, our management company and the student housing office have discussed issues that come up, i.e. behavior questions and so on," said Otile McManus, project director for the company.

Under the now-dead proposal, written by Day and carrying a February 2009 date, UMass-Boston would enter into a 1-to-2 year "master-lease agreement" with Corcoran Jennison for all the units in the Peninsula II building, and shift the students living at the Harbor Point Apartments into the building under the "primary management and responsibility" of the university.

The university would have also hired a full-time professional staffer to serve as a resident director, with students serving as resident assistants, like on other college campuses with dorms. The university also would have possibly dedicated a single campus police officer to the building.

"This shifting of students will allow for increased stewardship of student behavior and enable the University to provide more tailored services to residents to improve student success," according to the proposal.

The proposal added: "Given the promise of this partnership opportunity, UMass-Boston proposes to move quickly to solidify this proposed master lease agreement. Specifically, UMass-Boston proposes to have this agreement in place in time for occupancy beginning in the Fall 2009 Semester."

Day told the Reporter the university regularly talks with Corcoran Jennison, given the number of students at the Harbor Point Apartments.

"We see them as a part of how we will grow as a university," he said in an interview.

There are also other indications that Corcoran may be looking for ways to raise revenue. Last month an attorney listed a foreclosure auction for the company's Bayside Expo Center. Corcoran's attorney responded with assurances that a deal would be worked out before the auction takes place on May 28, canceling the auction.

The talks between Corcoran and UMass were consistent with the university's strategic plan to keep open housing options for students, he said.

"We're not backing off our intent," Day said. "We anticipate we'll continue to talk to them about options."

Don Walsh, a longtime member of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, said that the proposal runs counter to the community's wishes.

"UMass-Boston had an agreement with the community," said Walsh, who also chairs a city-sponsored task force examining future development uses on Columbia Point. "They came to the community and they announced they were doing dorms" without any input from the community, he added.