The UMass Building Authority has issued a Request for Information (RFI) as it seeks out ideas for the “highest and best use” of the former Bayside Expo Center site on Columbia Point in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a “modern-day Harvard Square.”
The document— released on Tuesday— asks developers to submit their ideas for a “mixed use development opportunity” on the waterfront site through potential public-private re-development.
The Bayside property has been controlled by UMass since 2010 after its previous owners lost the former exhibition hall to foreclosure, ending a $1 billion plan to create a new mixed-use neighborhood on the prime Dorchester Bay location. The purchase price was $18.7 million.
Since then, the Bayside site has twice been embroiled in controversy over its future use. First, boosters of the now-defunct Boston 2024 Olympics targeted it as the preferred home for an Athlete’s Village. Once that collapsed, the site was eyed by Robert Kraft as a potential home for a soccer stadium and concert venue. It was a discussion shrouded in secrecy and it led to calls for the university to throw open its process to a larger development community. Kraft and UMass announced in April that the stadium discussions had ended.
A spokesperson for the university said on Tuesday that the RFI is a “preliminary step and is non-binding.” The document asks developers to take into account earlier planning efforts for the peninsula, including UMass Boston’s Bayside Charretting Process, the Columbia Point Master Plan, and the UMass Boston Master Plan.
The request document highlights Bayside’s proximity to downtown Boston and the “fast-developing South Boston market.” It notes its location near the JFK/UMass Red Line station and waterfront access to the Harbor Walk and Carson Beach.
“Undeveloped sites of the size of the Bayside Property in the Boston metro area are rare and may allow a developer significant pricing power,” the RFI’s overview reads. “Successful partnership may include additional property that the University may acquire in the future.”
The document also notes that the UMass Building Authority is blessed with exemptions from city and state oversight and, in some cases, taxes.
In a section that outlines the “objectives” of the RFI, it reads, “UMass wishes to engage a Developer to conceptualize a vision to transform the Bayside Property into a modern-day Harvard Square, New Balance/Boston Landing, Kenmore Square, MIT Volpe Center etc., project; a mixed-use destination where a diverse community lives, learns and thrives, integrated with and complementary to the UMass Boston campus that optimizes its value and creates an oceanfront Boston neighborhood with academic, research, retail, residential, dining, entertainment and cultural uses, serving as a new gateway to UMass Boston and distinguishing the University in the higher education marketplace as a unique, attractive urban university, all accomplished by leveraging public private partnerships that will facilitate a more rapid development of the Bayside.”
City Councillor Frank Baker said Harvard Square or MIT could be a model for building a “college village, adding, “if we can get a college village, something that’s not just for college kids but that feels that everyone could be welcome and walking around, that could really be a win for the city.”
Baker said the RFI process is a strong first step, but wants to ensure that elected officials and neighbors are looped in as the process goes along.
“Hopefully we’re going to be involved when it starts to take shape, but I like the thought that they’re looking at the master plan.” It “gave whoever was building over there a sort of a roadmap” for the area, he said. Any mixed-use should be truly mixed, Baker said. “It’s got to be more than just residential [and] commercial. If they have research labs and classrooms, they should have cafes and restaurants and bookstores and those kind of things.”
Said Savin Hill resident Paul Nutting: “From a neighborhood perspective, we want to see amenities that we can go to.”
Interested developers have until Oct. 6 to file their responses to the UMBA.
What will happen after the RFI bids are received is not yet clear. “The RFI is non-binding, but if the information received informs a vision for the property and the timing makes sense, the next step in the sequence would be to develop an RFP [Request for Proposals],” said Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesperson for the UMass president’s office.
State Rep. Nick Collins of South Boston told the Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday evening that the RFI was a chance for a “new beginning at Bayside.” He added, “On the whole, it’s a great step forward for UMass, using the work that’s been done by the community and at the city level and state level.”
With the parcel sitting at the “gateway of Dorchester,” the university has a huge financial opportunity, Collins said. He, state Rep. Dan Hunt, and state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry last year put forward legislation that would require UMass to go through a transparent public process in developing its land.
The UMass Building Authority’s exemption from certain regulatory scrutiny is a boon if leveraged properly, said Collins, who expects the building authority to become engaged again with the community once developers have “driven a little competition with regard for what can be done, and complement all the work that has been done.”
Eileen Boyle, an officer with the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, is skeptical about soliciting developer input before re-engaging with neighbors. “UMass needs to bring the community back to the table,” she said. “Developers have different objectives than local residents.”
Reporter News Editor Jennifer Smith contributed to this story.