Suffolk moves dormitory plans to downtown

by Beacon Staff • April 4, 2007

After two failed attempts to build a new dorm on Beacon Hill, the ambitious commuter school may have finally found a place for 260 students to hang their hats at 10 West St. in Downtown Crossing.

After facing fierce opposition from the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) and a thumbs-down from Mayor Thomas Menino, Suffolk gave up hopes of claiming the city-owned Metropolitan District Commission building at 20 Somerset St.,For Suffolk University, the third time could be a charm.

After two failed attempts to build a new dorm on Beacon Hill, the ambitious commuter school may have finally found a place for 260 students to hang their hats at 10 West St. in Downtown Crossing.

After facing fierce opposition from the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA) and a thumbs-down from Mayor Thomas Menino, Suffolk gave up hopes of claiming the city-owned Metropolitan District Commission building at 20 Somerset St., which is just half a block away from their newest residence hall.

After the site at 10 West St. went on the market earlier this month, Suffolk entered talks with the owner, Gold Associates LLC, about acquiring the property which was amid conversion to condominiums. Gold Associates offered no comment on the transaction.

If the sale goes through and Suffolk receives approval from the city, the dorm will hold half the number of students the university sought to house on Beacon Hill, a point of contention for residents who said in a meeting last year they were already feeling the fallout from students moving into the neighborhood.

Downtown Crossing has been a target of improvement efforts since 2004, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced an initiative to clean up the appearance of the retail neighborhood. In June 2006 the city announced a more encompassing plan to create a new identity and brand for the neighborhood as "a 21st-century urban destination," according to the Downtown Crossing Strategy Web site.

Boston Redevelopment Authority spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said the direction of the consultations lean toward shutting down Washington Street to vehicular traffic and trying to activate more retail space, she said.

"The next phase is sort of how we do this," Shumaker said. "[The consultants] presented some cool glossy images, but it's not something the city can do on their own, we need the support of the community."

A dorm, she said, was something that could fit very well into the city's plans. "Students will activate the building 24 hours a day, so it's positive. Hopefully some new retailers will come in knowing those students are there. I think it can be win-win," she said.

While Suffolk negotiates, Emerson continues construction on the Paramount Center at 543-547 Washington St., just blocks from the 10 West St. site. If the Downtown Crossing initiative succeeds, Suffolk's presence could create a pedestrian avenue with two dormitories on either end.

Although Suffolk held talks with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) earlier this month, the 10 West St. site wasn't on the agenda, Schumaker said.

"It's a little strange because they were going to sit down and discuss the Institutional Master Plan when this building came along," Shumaker said. "It's hard for Suffolk to list everything in their Institutional Master Plan, so when buildings come on line, they have to act. Things come along at different times."

At eight stories, the 10 West St. building is a far cry from the proposed 31- and 22-story buildings BHCA members vehemently opposed last year.

Anne Meyers, president of the Downtown Crossing Association, said in a telephone interview that although the process is just beginning, community voices will be heard.

"We don't have a position yet," Meyers said. "There are members within the task force that are part of the association, so we'll be involved in the future."

City Councilor Michael P. Ross, chairman of the Institutional Relations Committee, a group devoted to dealing with universities, has supported new dorm projects in the past. Ross said in a telephone interview his office is involved in the 10 West St. project and was hopeful the dorm would offer a compromise, but that he had no dissolutions about its scope.

"This offers a solution to moving the campus of Suffolk towards Downtown Crossing," Ross said. "If you're looking at this as a total solution, it's not. Suffolk needs to get their current housing numbers past where they are."

Currently Suffolk houses only 16 percent of the 4,985, or just under 800 students, in two buildings on Beacon Hill and Tremont Street. As the demand for housing rose, Suffolk has leased a floor at the Holiday Inn Select at Government Center, offering 50 female students room and board, their website said.

Suffolk freshman interior design major Kelley Morris said although she wants more housing, she thought Downtown Crossing is intimidating at night.

"It's a little bit sketchy at night there, but it's better than putting kids in the hotel," she said.

Morris added she believed the 10 West St. dorm will benefit Suffolk and the residents wary of new dormitories.

"Honestly, it will be better than Beacon Hill," Morris said. "I think the noise complaints would be better. You can get only so loud in a dorm."

David Thomas, treasurer of the BHCA and the Suffolk Dorm Committee's chairman, echoed Ross' attitude. Thomas said in a telephone interview that the BHCA is still not entirely happy with Suffolk's long term goals, but they've "chosen not the object" to the planned dormitory.

"Rather than derail a master plan process for a small project, we thought it was better to barrel ahead," Thomas said. "What we're saying is, we're living with the legacy of Suffolk not having planned in the past."

Residents on Beacon Hill protested student dormitories in the historic neighborhood late last year, citing cleanliness and noise issues.

The BHCA last year independently consulted private city planners to better determine an alternative to expanding farther into Beacon Hill, and the consensus was Downtown Crossing or the Ladder District, the area from Boylston to School Streets between the parallel Tremont and Washington Streets, were better suited for the university, Thomas said.

Sophomore public relations major Jen Buckhout disagreed, saying that denying the dorm on Beacon Hill will have little effect.

"People will get apartments on Beacon Hill anyway," Buckhout said. "I think denying it was stupid."