An at-long-last moment: Dorms dedicated at UMass Boston

Mayor Walsh took a stroll outside UMass Boston’s new dormitory building on Tuesday afternoon. Jennifer Smith photo

The University of Massachusetts at Boston celebrated a milestone on Tuesday as city and state officials cut the blue ribbon on the Dorchester campus’ first-ever dormitories.

In remarks before the opening of the 1,077-bed dorms, which rise to 12 stories and include a first floor all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining area that will be open to the public, interim chancellor Katherine Newman welcomed the Columbia Point community to the new residence hall. More than 1,000 students will move in on Sunday, Sept. 2.

“As a new chancellor fortunate to preside over a beautiful campus poised on the water’s edge just a stone’s throw from this incredibly vibrant city,” she said, “I’m well aware of all those who came before me, who had to suffer through years and years of dirt mounds, of construction noise, of labyrinthian roadways that snaked all around the campus, and the constant pressure of difficult budget decisions.”

The $120 million dorms, and their $18 million dining facilities, were a long time coming, said Mayor Martin Walsh at the ceremony. “UMass Boston represents the promise for higher education,” said the mayor, whose father worked on the Columbia Point buildings when the state school came to Dorchester in the 1970s. “It puts the college experience within the reach of the working-class kids in the city of Boston and beyond the city of Boston… the true commitment here needs to be, and is, to the students, its neighbors, and the future of Boston.”

As the ceremony began, protestors outside objected to a proposed increase in parking fees to offset the campus debt, chanting, “Dorms yes, austerity no. These parking fees have got to go.”

Former UMass Boston chancellor J. Keith Motley, whose decade presiding over the campus included relentless championing of securing dormitories, was toasted by Newman, UMass President Martin Meehan, and Mayor Walsh alike.

“Credit where credit’s due: hats off to Chancellor Keith Motley,” Newman said, to enthusiastic applause from the packed room. Motley was in Pittsburgh celebrating his mother’s 85th birthday when the ribbon was cut.

Newman also thanked her predecessor, interim chancellor Barry Mills, “who stepped up when called and laid the foundation for renewal of this campus.”

“The night before my first day on the job as president,” Meehan said, “I got a call from Keith Motley, and he said, “Hey, man, I want you to come over to my campus tomorrow, I’m going to take you on a tour. You’ve got to meet with my students, and then we’re gonna talk about housing for UMass Boston.”

When U.S. News & World Report ranked UMass Boston as a tier one national university in 2016, it was the only school on the list lacking the option for students to live on campus. Motley stepped down the next year, with the dormitories he pushed for just beginning to rise on the skyline.

Walsh, whose former state representative district includes parts of the Dorchester campus, recalled the anxieties from fellow neighbors that dorms might undermine the longtime commuter school’s mission. As an elected official, Walsh later pushed for investments to the campus. He remembers the sustained campus effort to allay local concern about the dorms and bring the neighborhood on board through master planning processes. Now, as mayor, he is heartened by the new chapter these dorms have opened.

“When the master plan was done, I think you could feel the campus was on the cusp of something, there was really engagement,” Walsh said afterward. “The plan was driven by the university, the students at the time, the community — there were a few residents, leaders of the civic associations here today. This really truly is a community process.”

You can find more photos of the new dormitory from a Reporter walk-through last week here.