Mixed reaction meets UMass plan to buy Bayside

Community leaders and elected officials – many still absorbing last week’s unexpected news that UMass-Boston intends to purchase the Bayside Exposition Center on Columbia Point – offered a range of critiques this week.

While Mayor Tom Menino immediately hailed the potential acquisition, other political leaders are concerned that the university’s control will slow down the peninsula’s economic redevelopment and freeze tax receipts from the 20-acre commercial site.

The university announced last Wednesday that it had signed a letter of intent to buy the waterfront property for an undisclosed amount. The university’s chancellor, Dr. J. Keith Motley, explained that UMass-Boston intends to use the 20-acre site for parking and academic space as the university breaks ground on three new buildings on its current footprint.

In a letter to community leaders, Motley said, “UMass-Boston’s acquisition of the property, in addition to meeting immediate needs, would initiate
 a university-led planning process to create a vision for redeveloping the site to 
further university and local objectives.”
He pledged to work with the city, state, Columbia Point neighbors, and surrounding communities to stimulate activity and create jobs.
Motley added that UMass-Boston is committed to working with Menino and city officials “to compensate for the property’s removal from the city’s tax rolls.”

Menino, a UMass-Boston graduate, issued a statement within hours of Motley’s announcement in which he characterized the deal as “not only good for the university but also for the city and region.”
“UMass has been a great partner in providing many services for our residents and we believe that those partnerships will only grow as we move forward,” the mayor said.

The former owner of the Bayside Expo site— Joseph E. Corcoran— this week said he would “welcome” the UMass-Boston acquisition.
“It’s like the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know,” Corcoran said. “They were proactive on this. Dr. Motley indicated that he definitely wanted to do something that’s good for the school and the community.”

Corcoran said that his company – Corcoran Jennison Co. –offered to assist in any way that they could. “Dr. Motley spoke as if it were going to be very much a community effort,” he said, adding that any future redevelopment of the Bayside site – such as the now-defunct $1 billion mixed-use development that his company had proposed two years ago – might still take years to approve and build.

“In the meantime they might as well use it, as long as they have an agenda that doesn’t isn’t just to let it sit and be happy with it being a parking lot. This site deserves better.”

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, which is headquartered in a building that is attached to the Bayside Expo on Mt. Vernon Street, was less enthusiastic about the UMass-Boston plan.
“We obviously wish them well and we know they need room,” Stutman said of UMass. “We’re a little concerned that the final development for Columbia Point will be pushed back another five-seven years and it removes some valuable land from the tax base.”

 “We’d like to see the area developed eventually,” Stutman said. “This is not a development process. It’s parking and academic space. It won’t increase economic development in the Dorchester area.”

State Senator Jack Hart said this week that he would likely support the UMass-Boston acquisition if Motley wins community approval for its purchase. But Hart said that he had “serious concerns” about the way he and other stakeholders learned of the plan last week.

“This is a major change possibly in the development of that parcel. It seems like the BRA and the mayor were in the loop, but I feel a little bit slighted as someone who’s been so good to UMass. For them to come in and say, ‘Everything’s off the table, we’re going to do what we want to do,’ even with a community process, I think they’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here.”

State Rep. Marty Walsh, a Savin Hill Democrat, also criticized the manner in which he learned of the still-unconsummated real estate deal. Walsh likened Motley’s surprise announcement to the tenure of one of his predecessors – former chancellor Jo Ann Gora – whose unsuccessful push for dorms in 2003 led to stormy relations with the neighborhood.

“I think that UMass needs to do a better job at communication,” said Walsh. “More communication with the elected officials should have happened. There was no proper respect shown here when they made the announcement. They called us up as the press found out about it.”
“The way it was sprung on us, no discussion at all, and then I get a phone call,” Walsh said. “It kind of took us all by surprise. At the end of the day, will it work? Maybe.”

“It’s just a totally opposite direction of where we were going with the Bayside property,” said Walsh, who added that he still supports UMass-Boston’s plans to expand within its current footprint.

City Councillor Maureen Feeney also voiced concerns about the property getting taken off the tax rolls, “at a time when every tax dollar counts.” But, she added, there are “two sides to this coin.” The planned purchase is also an opportunity for UMass to add classroom space.”

A proposed redevelopment of the Bayside property – first put forward by Corcoran Jennison Co. in 2007 – would have completely transformed the site from its present big-box and asphalt layout to one with a grid of streets with a mix of first floor retail and apartments. The $1 billion project was already under review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority when the economy began its slide. Earlier this year, the Corcoran Jennison Co. lost the property to foreclosure, effectively terminating its plans for the redevelopment effort.

Even as the Bayside project hit the wall over the last two years, community leaders have been taking a wider look at the future of the broader Columbia Point peninsula. A BRA-led task force has been meeting regularly to develop a master plan for future developments. A draft of that master plan was released in November and revisions to the plan – based on input – will be released in February.

In a statement circulated yesterday, BRA planner Tad Read sought to re-assure task force members that a change in ownership at Bayside would not “undermine” the Master Plan process, even though the city would not have direct oversight of Bayside if it were owned by the state.

“The Master Plan will continue to guide future development of the significant majority of the redevelopment parcels in the Study Area and will therefore matter greatly,” Read said. “While it is true that the change in ownership to UMass means that the BRA will no longer have regulatory authority over land use on the property, we expect that UMass will continue to have an open dialogue with the city and community members as they prepare future plans for the site.”

Maureen McQuillen, president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, said that she and others who have worked on the Task Force over the last two years were “caught off guard” by the UMass-Boston move.

“It’s very exciting for UMass-Boston since it gives them area to stage their expansion,” McQuillen said. “However the neighborhood has invested two years in the Task Force plan and we’re towards the end of the process and getting close to the best possible framework for getting what we as a neighborhood want.”

Hart, who acknowledged that UMass taking ownership of the Bayside property might be better than an unknown developer seizing control, said that it would be “little consolation” if the chance to re-develop the site is stalled.

“The point is this is the new frontier,” Hart said. “This is Dorchester’s last opportunity to develop that magnificent piece of property. There will be a process. We hope to meet with [UMass president Jack] Wilson and Chancellor Motley right after the holidays to demand some answers.”