Elected officials keep close watch on UMass Bayside plans

UMass plans to sell or lease the 20 acre Bayside Exposition Center site— a transaction that could net a substantial sum needed to make costly repairs to the Dorchester campus. As the university and their representative begin soliciting offers, elected officials in Dorchester and South Boston are keeping close tabs on the effort.

UMass hired a commercial broker— Newmark Knight Frank— to market the property early this year. The waterfront site, in close proximity to the JFK/UMass station, offers the university a chance to leverage a booming real estate market.

“The process allows for any number of outcomes, from full sale to long-term lease to a joint development,” UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said in an email. He expects a sense of what the potential opportunities are for the site by late spring.

Last summer, the UMass Building Authority (UMBA) issued a “Request for Information” to developers in the region. Sixteen companies indicated an interest in buying or partnering with UMass to redevelop the site by the October deadline, though their responses remain sealed from public view.

City Councillor Frank Baker of Dorchester hopes the development there will be permeable, allowing access from the neighborhood to the waterfront, and account for existing neighborhood planning work.

“We really have to look at that one step at a time,” he said. “Okay, what does that RFI look like, which is [a] very closed envelope.  Hopefully when they get down to two or three [bidders] they’ll call people and say, “they want to do this” or “they want to do this.”
“There’s an opportunity there for UMass to have their needs met, however that is, so I look forward to seeing exactly what UMass is planning,” said Baker.

UMass officials have said the community will be involved in the development process. The RFI noted the existing Columbia Point Master Plan and prior planning charrettes as a jumping-off point. Most responses were consistent with the RFI’s mixed-use oceanfront-gateway concept, a spokesman said.

Elected officials in South Boston and Dorchester have kept an eye on the proceedings, wary after a Robert Kraft-backed 20,000-seat stadium proposal for the site in 2017 triggered pushback regarding a secretive discussion process that left the neighborhood out of the loop.

At a meeting in late January, elected officials asked UMass for fresh details on its plans after the Globe and then the Reporter broke news of the potential sale.

“If this was going to be a sale or a long-term lease, we wanted clarification on how they’re promoting the tools that the university’s empowered with to further their economic mission, and if they were going to use it to support the school,” said state Rep. Nick Collins.
The type of sale has implications for community input. If it were to be a single-interaction sale, the developers would need to take their plans through the city’s normal Article 80 process with the Boston Planning and Development Agency. This would ensure a seat at the table for nearby community members.

A long-term lease or partner development would reserve the university’s right to exercise its zoning and tax exemptions and its bonding authority.

Legislation still working its way through committees on Beacon Hill, filed during the stadium discussions, would require that the university be subject to local zoning regulations if any of its property is to be developed for non-academic purposes. It would also end UMass’s exemption from the state’s open bidding process, remove tax exemptions for public-private partnerships, and restrict the university from allowing private developers to use their bonding capacity.

The university’s building arm pushed back forcefully against the legislation in Sept. 2017, saying it “would serve as a detriment to the students and families of the University of Massachusetts.”

The Expo Center site legislation ensures that “whether people are for or against a project, their voice is heard,” state Rep. Dan Hunt said after a Ward 13 caucus on Monday.

Any potential impact on the Bayside site from the legislation is uncertain, though university officials say the marketing process is not a reaction to the proposed bills.

“While the process could result in multiple outcomes, the university will be engaged throughout to ensure that it meets both our fiduciary responsibilities and our goals for the Boston campus,” Cournoyer said.

An open question revolves around the connection between development at the Bayside site and nearby infrastructure that has long frustrated locals, like the oft-jammed, perilous Kosciuszko Circle.

During stadium discussions, Mayor Martin Walsh and others expressed a hope that a major project could also be leveraged to improve the rotary and surrounding transit points.

Collins, whose district overlaps with the top of Columbia Point, said in early February that the state should not bank on the Bayside parcel to clean up its infrastructure messes.

“I don’t believe the development at Bayside should be paying for the upgrade of Kosciuszko Circle, the upgrade at JFK station, and other things like that,” said Collins, who is now a candidate for state Senate. “I think that’s a problem that the state has to fix and it can’t just be on the backs of the university and the Bayside site.”

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