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A building boom on campus

Major projects for area colleges expected to boost landscape, economy

A new residential tower could rise 30 stories over the Back Bay. A sprawling complex would buzz with hundreds of scientists in Allston, and a sleek glass-and-limestone business school would fill out the banks of the Charles.

These projects -- at Berklee College of Music, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- are among about two dozen new buildings on the drawing board at universities and colleges in the Boston area.

In the next decade, construction on eight college and university campuses will create thousands of jobs and alter the Boston landscape. The plans -- some recently unveiled, others under construction -- call for building more than 5 million square feet, according to a Globe tally of available figures from the schools. They would cost well over $1.3 billion, a price tag that does not include Harvard's or Boston College's proposals because they would not provide cost estimates.

"Things are changing in our city, and I think changing for the good," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino . Universities "are bringing new energy to this city. The possibilities for development are just untold, you can't even imagine what they are going to be."

Boston-area colleges large and small are taking advantage of their wealth, their rising national reputations, and their expanding research programs to undertake historic levels of growth.

They have also been pushed by the city of Boston to house more students on campus and are driven by market forces to improve amenities for students and expand research facilities.

New residence halls would house an additional 6,000 students.

But the university building boom, while alleviating town-gown tension in some areas, has increased it in others.

Some residents worry that high-rise dorms could erode the character of their neighborhoods, and others oppose more development because they say tax-exempt universities already place too much of a burden on the city's budget.

Boston has not seen such a rash of university development since at least the 1960s, said Richard M. Freeland , former president of Northeastern and a historian of higher education. Today, he said, local colleges are thriving to the point that they can finance hundreds of millions of dollars for construction.

BC and MIT are each working on major campus upgrades with at least four new buildings on existing land, for a variety of purposes including housing and research. Harvard is beginning what promises to be a decades-long expansion into Allston, with a focus on science, professional schools, and cultural spaces. Northeastern, Suffolk University , Boston University, Emerson College, and Berklee are building or planning to build new dormitories.

For the most part, they are adding space to house more students on campus, rather than to expand enrollment.

Civic leaders say that while higher education has long been one of Boston's strongest economic sectors, it has become all the more crucial as Boston has lost much of its status as a major corporate headquarters. Gillette, FleetBoston, and John Hancock were bought by out-of-town corporations.

In 2002, the city's major research universities employed 50,750 people, a study found.

The building boom will create thousands of short-term construction jobs and thousands more permanent skilled and unskilled jobs, according to Globe estimates based on formulas developed by Appleseed , a New York-based economic development consultant company that has done similar studies for the Boston Foundation and Harvard.

Colleges' growth also indirectly spawns new businesses, civic leaders say.

MIT's new $210 million cancer research building will house at least 400 biologists, engineers, and their support staff working to develop new drugs and devices.

Harvard's short-term plans include about 1 million square feet of research facilities, which could lead to a steady stream of discoveries and spark the creation of eight to 10 start-up companies each year, according to Appleseed's formulas.

The buildings will give one of the country's most historic cities a more contemporary look, said several architects and urban planners. It will also mean a taller city, since cramped schools are often building up instead of out. BU, Northeastern, Suffolk, and Berklee are all working on towers of at least 22 stories.

Universities are much more likely to commission creative, exciting architecture than private companies, said Ted Landsmark , president of the Boston Architectural College .

In Allston, Harvard intends to transform an industrial and commercial patch of land into a mix of academic buildings, cultural facilities, housing, and green space.

The conceptual drawings for the 695,000-square-foot science complex, by the German firm Behnisch Architects, suggest something glassy and contemporary.

Berklee proposes a high-rise for dormitory space and a theater, with two or three towers at the corner of Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue that could revitalize a stretch of Mass. Ave. overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike, said school officials and other observers.

The various projects will "make the city seem younger and minimize the old-fogey quality Boston sometimes has," said Alex Krieger , a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and a principal in a Cambridge architecture and urban design firm.

But some people do not want the city to feel younger, especially if that means students yelling in the streets and urinating in their bushes on Saturday nights.

Steven Turner , a developer and Beacon Hill resident, is on a community task force evaluating a controversial Suffolk dorm project for a 22-story tower with about 500 beds.

He is worried about more rowdy students moving in and about the shadows and wind the tower would create. He is also concerned about the neighborhood losing its historic and residential feel.

"I understand that it's a life-or-death situation for these colleges," Turner said, referring to their need to grow. "But the city can't let them displace the neighborhoods while they're at it."

City officials say that new residence halls will reduce that danger by getting students onto campuses. Fewer students commuting to schools will alleviate the traffic and parking crunch and will keep housing prices in check, they say.

Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy said he thinks the growth of these tax-exempt institutions is starving the city of revenue. He is holding hearings Friday on his proposal to require universities to greatly boost the payments they make in lieu of taxes.

"It's an unmitigated disaster financially for us to have nonprofits, especially educational institutions, expanding within the geographic limits of the city," Murphy said.

Freeland, a visiting professor at Harvard, said the expansion is a boon, not a burden.

"What we are looking at today is a fantastic validation of the vitality of these institutions," he said. "They are the greatest institutional treasure the city has."

Globe correspondent Stephanie M. Peters contributed to this article. Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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