Commentary: Dot Bay City project offers promise of empowerment, equal opportunity

In an era marked by alarming inequality, economic growth that lacks a focus on inclusion exacerbates the problem. This is especially true in the context of urban development projects. Success requires a steadfast commitment to promoting equity.

With Mayor Wu’s visionary equity-minded leadership and the recent vote by the Boston Planning & Development Agency Board approving the Dorchester Bay City (DBC) project endorsed by the University of Massachusetts, the city now advances a significant development that promises to further revitalize Columbia Point, advance a shared vision of smart, sustainable growth in Boston, and generate broad economic benefits for our community.

The idea of a major university collaborating with industry, civic organizations, and government to reimagine communities is not new. Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and Silicon Valley in California are iconic examples. Both became hubs for high-tech industries and medical centers, and powerful drivers of creativity – attracting investors, generating workforce pipelines, enhancing tax bases, and lifting urban areas.

What stands out in the case of Dorchester Bay City is the purposeful alignment around, and insistence on, equity of opportunity and quality of life for residents and other stakeholders.

Structural inequality in higher education thrives where opportunities – internships, mentorships, co-op placements – are unequally distributed. Students at elite private institutions take access to such opportunities for granted and profit enormously from them.

What distinguishes UMass Boston students – and advantages them vis-à-vis the DBC development – is who they are. Most are students of color, the only demographic in the Commonwealth that is growing. Many are first generation, historically underrepresented, or immigrant-origin. And many work to support families while pursuing degrees.

Our students are from Boston, and they stay in Boston. UMass Boston serves more Boston Public School graduates than any other higher education institution in our city, with more than 1,700 enrolled and 350 welcomed each fall. Over 3,000 UMass Boston students currently reside here. During the past two academic years, nearly 2,200 reported securing internships here, in fields like engineering and health care. Data suggest that 80 percent of our graduates will remain in Boston upon graduating.

Well over 60 percent of new DBC buildings are projected to house laboratories and R&D facilities, including for the Commonwealth’s life sciences, health care, and STEM ecosystem. Many of these fields will be represented in companies that set up in DBC, creating opportunities to collaborate with UMass Boston faculty, researchers, and students around high-impact areas of discovery.

Boston’s business sector knows that America’s demographics are changing and that diverse, well-educated employees are a critical asset. As New England’s most diverse college campus, UMass Boston students are the future of the Massachusetts economy. We understand and embrace our pivotal role in educating and preparing workforce-ready folks who will power the regional economy.

The DBC vision sets out to empower people with equal opportunity. And by design, it addresses many of the city’s policy priorities through an equity lens.

The project is slated to generate $300 million in public benefits to the area, including investments in transportation, affordable housing, and climate resilience. Heat-trapping asphalt parking lots that dominate the site today will be converted into acres of green open spaces – some along the Dorchester and South Boston waterfront – meant to be inclusive, accessible, and safe.

In addition, a learning and innovation center would house programs focused on employment training opportunities and career services for neighborhood residents. First-floor storefronts would include diverse retail establishments owned by women and people of color. Minority-owned businesses would be solicited to participate as contractors during construction, and later, as tenants.

DBC’s success will require a broad-based effort to align economic growth with equity, core values that underpin the relationship between UMass Boston and the city. The project offers a chance to boost economic development in a manner that advances Gov. Healey’s goal of making Massachusetts more competitive.

From the vantage point of Boston’s only public research university, Dorchester Bay City is an investment in a shared future for Boston, one that will extend the reach of UMass Boston’s teaching and research, shape the region’s workforce, and enact a blueprint for equity. The future looks bright on Columbia Point and our Beacons are ready to light the way.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is chancellor of UMass Boston. He is author of many books and volumes, most recently “The COVID Generation: Children and Youth in and After the Pandemic.”

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