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Student high-rise proposed near NU

Developer's idea draws criticism

A private development team's proposal to build a high-rise for student housing on the edge of Northeastern's campus is angering the university, already under fire itself for its dorm projects that would push student residences farther into -- and above -- the urban neighborhoods that surround them.

The proposal opens a new front in the town vs. gown battles already raging in Allston with Harvard University, and in Brighton with Boston College. As with the other plans, wary neighbors fearful of hulking buildings and booming parties are also pushing back.

"The big picture is, this could eventually bring 3,000 students into basically a one-block area," said Barbara Simons , who lives on Symphony Road and leads a group of neighbors who oppose the high-rise. "It's a huge 34-story tower, and we don't like it one little bit."

This battle, though, comes with a twist. If built, the project could mark the first private dormitory in the Boston area, and Northeastern officials say they are as unhappy as the neighbors with the plan. Those neighbors, meanwhile, are wondering where to turn and who m to blame.

The $200 million development is now under review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which would have to approve the project. The Dallas development team, Phoenix Property Co. and Lincoln Property Co., would like to begin construction by the middle of next year. The proposal for the tower, which would be called GrandMarc at St. Botolph Street, comes on the heels of Northeastern's plans to turn nearby Cullinane Hall into a 600-student dormitory and longer-range plans to turn nearby Gainsborough Garage into a large residence hall. The time lines for the two NU projects are still being worked out.

The GrandMarc, a 470,000-square-foot building, would stand on St. Botolph Street behind the YMCA of Greater Boston and would be open to any renters, though its target market is students.

Northeastern, whose campus borders Roxbury, the South End, and the neighborhood around Symphony Hall, recently began construction on a high-rise dormitory at Tremont and Ruggles streets.

The developers said they were drawn to Boston because of its acute need for student housing, and they are working closely with neighbors to respond to concerns.

A Northeastern University spokesman would say only that the university is not involved. But in a June 15 letter to the BRA, the school's vice president of facilities, Daniel Bourque, said he thought construction on the project would interfere with the school's plans for the Cullinane Hall dorms.

"We view the GrandMarc proposal as a potential impediment to the harmony of the existing campus as well as recently approved future development projects," Bourque wrote.

Northeastern bid on the property, owned by the YMCA, last March but was rejected, the letter stated.

Michael Paradiso , interim president of the student government association at Northeastern University, said that although students want more housing choices, they would be uneasy with the idea of private residence halls because such facilities are not actually run by the college.

Paradiso said he sympathizes with neighbors' concerns because a private building might not be as well-supervised as a university one.

"The university has made good progress with community relations, but this could severely impede that," he said.

But John Cappellano , senior vice president at Lincoln Property Co., said the private student residence model has been well received in college towns across the country. The company has built similar developments near Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Maryland in College Park.

The GrandMarc would feature a mix of traditional dorm rooms with two beds and a shared bathroom, and larger suites with individual bedrooms. They would be fully furnished and average $1,000 a month, with utilities included -- more expensive than Northeastern's freshman dorms, and roughly equal to upper class dorms.

With a parent co-signer, students could lease apartments directly from the developer. Although the apartments would not be restricted to students, nonstudents almost never express interest, he said.

The university would not be involved, but Cappellano said students would be hired to oversee the residents, and that troublesome students would be evicted.

"We have tight rules, we have tight leases," he said.

Neighbors said they're concerned about unmonitored behavior and believe that Northeastern has done a better job of cracking down on problem students in recent years. The effort to house more students on campus came at city leaders' urging in 2004 after the death of a 21-year-old man on Symphony Road during post-Super Bowl rioting near Northeastern.

"It feels like a bait-and-switch," Simons said of a private developer putting in a dorm after neighbors thought they had established what would be in the area with Northeastern. "Once it gets built, there will be no one minding the store. All that will be left is a managing company."

Lucy Warsh , deputy press secretary for BRA, said the city shares some of the community's concerns about the height of the building and the management of students at the dormitory and would closely oversee the project. Once the building is constructed, the BRA has no oversight.

Some worry the high-rise building would permanently blight the landscape.

"It's not an appropriate place to build a tower," said Jim Hartmann , who lives on Gainsborough Street. "We're not downtown."

New England Conservatory, which stands on Huntington Avenue near the proposed high-rise and could have students leasing apartments there, said it is still trying to decide whether the dorms are a good fit for the area.

"We see it as a work in progress," said public relations manager Ellen Pfeifer. "It would be tall, though."

The YMCA of Greater Boston sold the developers the property, which now is the site of two wings of its building, last June for $25 million. The developer will knock down the two wings to create space for the new tower. The Y will maintain its current location and current programs, as well as 88 units of affordable housing above its headquarters.

"We want to make sure the community knows we aren't going anywhere," said YMCA spokeswoman Kelley Rice. "We're here for the long haul."

Rice said she believes the students would make good neighbors.

"We're surrounded by colleges and universities right now," she said. "Students are a natural part of life down here."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.


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