UMass Boston weighs opinions on re-use of Expo site

UMass Boston officials last week took another step closer to figuring out what to do with the former Bayside Expo Center, which the university purchased in 2010. Student housing, affordable housing, and a “beacon,” after the Columbia Point campus’s lighthouse mascot, were some of the suggestions brought up at a Saturday community meeting focusing on the Bayside site.

“It’s a relatively transient population out here because few own their homes,” said Paul Nutting, a member of the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association. Nutting also pushed for expanding the Harbor Walk, which runs along the perimeter of the campus.

Another attendee, John Walsh of Meetinghouse Hill, suggested a university gift shop.

“Why don’t you put a beacon out there as a landmark?” he asked.

UMass purchased the 20-acre site in May 2010 for $18.7 million and held meetings this summer to solicit ideas. On Saturday, UMass officials followed up with another public session, attended by several dozen community members, students, and UMass staff members. The officials said they are still in the planning phase, still weighing possibilities for the site.

The space is currently geared for parking as UMass builds a new integrated sciences complex and plans additional academic buildings, and an institute dedicated to the study of the U.S. Senate.

At the summer meetings, suggestions included expanding the campus’s School of Management to provide “incubator space” for new businesses and a hospitality program with a hotel or conference center managed by UMass; a maritime research institute; a new “School of Energy Studies” focusing on green technology; a visual and performing arts center; university-based research facilities complemented by retail, commercial office, and residential uses; or a “gateway” for the main campus, which is located a half mile away.

David Lee, a partner at the Boston architectural firm Stull and Lee, outlined five potential frameworks for the site. The firm has worked on the Boston Police Headquarters, the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and Morning Star Baptist Church, according to its website.

The first framework included a formal open space to complement the waterfront park. The second framework raised the possibility of creating a walkway through the middle of the site, extending out onto a public pier. The third framework includes a “signature building” at the water’s edge in order to maximize views of Dorchester Bay and downtown Boston. The fourth framework suggests a central quadrangle to use for green space, while the fifth framework included four quadrangles of open space.

Arthur Bernard, vice chancellor for government relations and public affairs, said the plans for the site have to be incorporated into the university’s overall master planning process. Very much relevant to the planning is the fact that because the former Bayside site is state-owned, it is not subject to local zoning codes.

Corcoran Jennison, the previous owner of the building, had originally proposed 250,000-square feet of retail space, 100,000-square feet of office space and 300 residential units. The company lost control of the the space, once used for events like flower shows and comic book conventions, in a foreclosure auction.

Originally built as a shopping center in 1966, the Bayside site was converted into an exhibition hall in 1982. But its business withered as more shows were drawn to the larger Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston. Three buildings abut the property at its southwestern edge and remain privately owned, including the Boston Teachers Union Hall at 180 Mt. Vernon Street, the five-story Bayside Office Center at 150 Mt. Vernon Street, and the Doubletree Hotel.

The exhibition hall still stands, and a UMass-commissioned report from July 2010 found that the parking lot needed repairs and the roofs needed “complete replacement” because they were leaky and beyond their “useful life.”