State House bills zero in on UMass building process: Would mandate public process, link projects to education needs

Three local legislators have filed bills that would limit the primary purpose of University of Massachusetts Boston buildings to education and necessitate an open public process for any new development undertaken by the university’s building arm.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry presented the bills on Jan. 20, with state representatives Dan Hunt and Nick Collins joining the petition on the House side early this month.

This new legislation would require the University of Massachusetts be subject to local zoning regulations, if any of their property is developed for non-academic purposes, and would also end their exemption from the state’s open bidding process. It also removes tax exemptions for public-private partnerships and restricts UMass from allowing private developers to use their bonding capacity.

A bill entitled “An Act Relative to the Zoning of Education Facilities” would amend the general laws to state: “The use of land or structures for educational purposes owned or leased by the University of Massachusetts Building Authority shall require that education be the primary use of the facility and not incidental thereto.”

Mechanisms for determining a building’s primary purpose were not spelled out in the text of the bill.

The second bill, “An Act Increasing Transparency for the University of Massachusetts Building Authority,” would strike a subsection in the Acts of 1960 that allows trustees of the UMass Building Authority (UMBA) to, on behalf of the commonwealth, “Do any and all other things authorized by law and necessary or convenient to aid and co-operate in the planning, construction or operation of a project by the Authority.”

As the legislation was filed, the university was continuing work on a 1,077-bed residence hall and a free-standing 1,400-space parking garage. Neither UMass Boston nor the UMBA had any comment about the filings.

The bill docket numbers are Senate Docket Nos. 2037 and 2038. They have not yet been assigned to a committee for review.

Discussions regarding development on the Columbia Point campus circled for the past few months around a potential stadium for Robert Kraft’s New England Revolution on the former Bayside Expo Center site, where the main building is undergoing demolition. Conversations between the Building Authority and the New England Patriots owner have taken place largely out of sight and concerned community members and local elected officials alike.

The site at the northernmost end of UMass Boston’s campus is located near JFK/UMass Station, an entrance to Interstate 93, and the hazardous Kosciuszko Circle rotary at the northern end of often-flooded William T. Morrissey Boulevard, which is poised for a redesign that could consume the better part of a decade, with the potential to impact heavily traveled Mt. Vernon Street.

“Dorchester’s Columbia Point is an important area in my district and my colleagues and I are committed to working collaboratively with stakeholders to do what it takes to protect the neighborhood’s interest,” Sen. Forry said in a statement.

Discussions of a stadium have been greeted by measures of support from Mayor Martin Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker, with the former noting the need for a traffic fix at the rotary before any large development could spring up at the site.

Dealing with Kosciuszko Circle should be a priority regardless of other major construction plans, Sen. Forry’s office said, and any alterations should happen separately from private development on the Point.

Development conversations around the Point are complicated by a standing master plan, conducted with community input and approved by the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority in 2011, that laid out development goals for the area but is non-binding.

In the master plan, the neighborhood welcomed some density and marked out parcels for future development at the Bayside site, noting the lack of concrete proposals. Those involved with creating the plan have been vocal in past months about an onslaught of new development that they say appears out of character with the master plan’s recommendations.