BU says campus future is up in the air

Boston University is looking to sew up a deep cut that divides South Campus from Commonwealth Avenue by capping the Massachusetts Turnpike and dramatically altering the campus, officials said.

Boston residents now gaze up at the looming Student Village high rises as a blueprint to the university’s development plan. For a look into the future, however, the vacant air space over the Turnpike and the deteriorating bridges and beat-up streets near central campus offer long-term promise for multiuse development. BU has done a considerable amount of urban planning in the past 18 months, President Robert Brown said.

Squeezed between Storrow Drive and residential Brookline, the university has reached for the stars to increase campus space. In planning since the 1980s, on-campus residential development at the Student Village dwarfs nearby structures. The second phase of development at the Village, a dormitory rising 26 stories from street level, surpasses the first dorm’s height.

Width may be the next dimension for development at BU, Brown said. For decades, the university has eyed the chasm between Commonwealth Avenue and South Campus. Mentioned briefly in Brown’s 10-year strategic plan, air right development interested former BU President John Silber.

Air rights determine development plans for parcels of space the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority owns above the thruway. BU owns the land around surrounding the Turnpike, making it the “natural tenant” to lease and develop the open space above the road, Brown said.

“With the development of our campus and the cost of land in Boston, it will be, at some point in time, the natural way for us to expand the campus in width,” Brown said.

The Charles River Campus Brown envisions intertwines several development projects, including adaptations of previously proposed ideas. BU officials approached neighboring Brookline last month with plans to work with the state to repair the BU Bridge, which is on the commonwealth’s “expedited repair” list. A knot of one-way streets and short bridges between Cambridge, Boston and Brookline requires state and school attention, officials have said.

Last year, BU’s response to the problem area was the “ellipse” – a combination green space and a transportation hub proposed by Greenberg Consultants, a Toronto-based development firm. The idea has since been squashed, Brown said.

“The traffic consultants killed the ellipse. That happens. The decision was made and I concurred at the end: the problem with the ellipse is it creates a concept of people driving pretty fast,” Brown said. “It’s a rotary. They said that was not the best idea for a heavy pedestrian area like the middle of our campus.”

If BU developed space over the Turnpike, building atop decks constructed across the artery, the school would be able to create a unified campus.

“You cement South Campus with the main part of the Charles River Campus . . . punch a hole through that and create natural walkways, so people would walk back and forth with green space,” Brown said, reflecting on the possibilities. “It would be quite wonderful for the campus.”

The project, which Brown said would provide enough acreage for 30 to 50 years of development, requires the cooperation of multiple state and municipal agencies, along with the university.

MTA Chief Development Officer Stephen Hines said BU has been discussing various development ideas, including air rights development, with the state agency and several other organizations. No transactions or agreements have been made, but the MTA has talked to BU in the past and is “certainly open to the idea of air rights development with BU and others,” Hines said.

A now-stalled $800 million Columbus Center Project, another air rights development project that was agreed upon in May 2006, is not a good basis for determining the cost of BU’s future air rights project, Hines said.

When BU put forth a rough idea for air rights development in its 1986 master plan, planners noted that university development — often academic and residential buildings, rather than commercial spaces — generally does “not generate sufficient cash flow to make development of air rights feasible” at the time.

Air rights projects typically require deck construction above the roadway, Hines said. Buildings are constructed atop these decks. Air rights construction involves more steel than typical projects for stability and safety. Lighting and ventilation must be installed underneath the deck if it is long enough to prevent adequate sunlight exposure for traffic beneath.

Developers and the MTA must remain conscious of safety issues, such as building maintenance, Hines said.

“We’re redoubling our efforts to make sure that there’s solid understanding and frequent inspection of those buildings, that’s something you have to be aware of,” Hines said.

The Prudential Center and Copley Place area is a prime example of a successful air rights development project, he said.

“Its added vitality to that part of the city,” he said. “Basically that created a connection between parts of the city that were separated by a highway and rail and kind of created a better urban environment by making that connection, by allowing people to walk from the Back Bay to the South End, not over bridges exposed to the wind but along streets with buildings and facades and retail uses and more activity.”

The development also offered the city an increase in tax revenues. Hines said he does not know how BU would work out its development plans with the city of Boston since the school does not pay property taxes as a nonprofit institution.

Brown said if BU develops air rights, it would not be acquiring new city land, which could be taken off the municipal tax roll. Recently, the state legislature has discussed removing nonprofit status for universities with endowments over $1 billion, including BU. The conflicts between Boston, Brookline and BU over how much the school should pay to the localities have long histories.

“We certainly, at the Turnpike, would be looking at the value of what we’re providing and would expect to be paid some rent for the use of what is really our property,” Hines said. The MTA also expects developers to pay for upkeep beneath decks, he said.

MTA spokesman Mac Daniels said various other organizations will be part of the decision to allow BU to develop the air rights.

“BU doesn’t just say we’re going to build, and it gets done,” Daniels said. “There’s a huge amount of public outreach and coordination with the city and Brookline that would need to be done before any plans could move forward.”

Brookline’s approval depends upon public benefit, tax revenue, affordable housing and neighborhood wants, among other things, Brookline Planning and Community Development Director Jeff Levine said. Levine said he does not expect the MTA to issue a request for BU to lease the rights to parcels two and three anytime soon, and the process ahead could last at least 10 years.

“As always, there’s always a little bit of a delicate relationship with a town and a university, always a sort of back and forth,” Levine said. “There’s not any one thing that would determine how we would respond to this kind of proposal.”

He said although his department has heard a proposal, there has been no official response from the public, but he called the overall public opinion on air rights development a “mixed bag.”

“Quality of life” would be improved for residents because air rights development over the roadway would make it easier for them to get to the Charles River by foot or bike, Levine said. However, because BU is tax-exempt, another kind of benefit would be expected, he said.

A long-discussed Urban Ring, connecting Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville is a project Brown said BU has a “big stake” in. When Harvard University completes its Allston campus expansion, there will be a “huge demand” for traffic to cross from Commonwealth Avenue in West Campus to North Allston, he said.

Harvard has also put forth proposals to get the transportation assets of the Urban Ring onto its proposed Allston expansion. The MBTA will need to get involved with the project, which may include bus lines and a Commuter Rail station. The universities could bump into each other for roles in ring development, Brown said. BU is bringing a proposal for an on-campus River Station to the table.

“If you don’t have a plan, you don’t get into discussions,” he said.

Levine said BU would like to close the on and off ramps to Storrow Drive as part of the Urban Ring development plan. Overall it would be beneficial for Brookline residents, but would create additional traffic, and he has heard mixed reactions, he said.

BU’s short-term projects include completing the third phase of Student Village development and renovating Myles Standish Hall, “the [dorm] most in need,” Brown said. The school additionally plans to build a major undergraduate classroom building on the old Burger King parking lot across from Warren Towers, but programming has not commenced and the project will require significant fundraising, Brown said.

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