City officials are urging Boston College to find alternatives to its controversial plan to build dormitories on the property formerly owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, putting the city squarely in opposition to a pivotal piece of the school's long-term vision.
In a review of the project released late Wednesday, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which reviews and must approve college expansion plans in the city, called on BC to strongly consider restricting undergraduate housing to its main Chestnut Hill campus.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that BC should limit new dormitories to the traditional campus.
"I say to them, why can't they build the new dorms on the campus they already have?" he said. "We want to see more housing on the present campus."
Nearby residents said they would prefer that BC use the former archdiocesan property, which the college calls the Brighton campus, for academic and administrative use.
Those neighbors hailed the recommendation, but the college said Brighton is the only feasible location for the additional dorms that neighbors and city officials have urged them to build. College officials see the 65-acre Brighton property as an unprecedented opportunity to give a crowded urban campus badly needed space for new facilities as part of a $1.6 billion improvement campaign over the next decade.
The recommendation is a "very clear signal that we have heard the message from the neighbors about the concerns they have," said BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.
"We feel at a minimum BC needs to address why they can't meet their housing goals on their current campus, and [we] expect a good-faith effort from BC to show us other options," she said.
Shumaker stressed that the preliminary report, part of a long-term review of a master plan the college submitted in December, did not rule out dormitories on the Brighton campus.
Neighbors who live near BC have raised a range of objections to the college's expansion proposal in often tense and emotional public meetings this winter, chiefly the plan to house 500 undergraduates in dorms on 65 acres BC acquired from the archdiocese, in the first dorms slated for the Brighton side of Commonwealth Avenue. Some neighbors also oppose dorms on Shea Field, which they say is too close to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said the college would work to address the city's concerns. But he said the Chestnut Hill campus is already "exceedingly dense" and cannot handle 500 additional undergraduates. Building dorms on the Brighton property, he said, is the only way the college can add student housing.
Dunn said neighbors' complaints about the location of student housing, in light of longstanding demands to house more students on campus, amounted to "a question of NIMBYism." NIMBY is the acronym for "not in my backyard."
"Everyone wants to see college students live on campus, unless they happen to live close to campus," Dunn said.
BC reached an agreement with church leaders last spring to purchase the 18 remaining acres of the property for $65 million, the most recent of several purchases by BC in the past few years.
Dunn said developers had eyed the land for luxury condominiums or a shopping mall. The city's demand that BC find alternative expansion plans runs counter to Menino's request that colleges build more dormitories, Dunn said.
"We were following the mayor's lead," he said. "We feel confident this plan is in the best interest of the college and the community."
Menino said that his push for student housing predated the university's expansion into Brighton and that he prefers not to see dormitories in such close proximity to the Brighton neighborhood.
Alex Selvig, who lives beside the archdiocesan property on Lake Street, said he was pleased by the BRA review, which he described as rigorous and thorough.
"It's very encouraging and renews a lot of people's faith in the BRA process," he said. "Everything we were concerned about, those questions are being asked."
Residents have long called for students to be housed on campus as a way to buffer the neighborhood from unruly behavior, Selvig said. Building dorms beside the neighborhood defeats the purpose, he said.
"Taking that misbehavior and putting it right beside the neighbors doesn't address the issue," he said.
Tim Schofield, a member of the community task force advising the BRA, said the housing recommendation was a clear signal that city officials heard neighbors' contention that Boston College has sufficient room on its main campus for additional student housing.
"Boston College has said there are no alternatives," he said. "But we have always felt that's just not the case. It simply does not jibe with the facts."
The Redevelopment Authority also urged the college to consider relocating a proposed recreation center to potentially allow housing on that site and recommended nonresidential alternatives to the Shea Field site.
The full development of the former archdiocesan property would increase the 120-acre campus by more than 50 percent. The Brighton campus would also include an athletic field house, a baseball field, and a 500-space parking facility.