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Beacon Hill, Suffolk reach expansion deal

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

Suffolk University and the chief Beacon Hill neighborhood group have struck a pivotal deal on the college's ambitious expansion plan, paving the way for its approval and easing one of the city's deepest town-gown quarrels.

The hard-won pact, announced yesterday after 18 months of talks and two days of intense negotiations between Suffolk and Beacon Hill Civic Association representatives, essentially prevents the college from enlarging its Beacon Hill footprint, a long-standing fear among residents.

It would sharply extend a "nonexpansion zone" to include Upper Beacon Hill, the area between Charles Street and the Charles River, and the Park Street area. In a highly unusual condition, the college has also agreed to freeze its enrollment at 5,000 full-time undergraduates for the next decade to limit its need for further growth.

In exchange, the civic association has agreed to support Suffolk's plan to build a 10-story academic building at 20 Somerset St. and not to contest the university's 10-year expansion plan, which is under city review. They have also agreed to nonresidential developments at 73 Tremont St., 1 Beacon St., and in Center Plaza.

Suffolk officials and Beacon Hill neighbors praised the agreement, which must be approved Monday by the neighborhood group's board, as a milestone that is likely to end years of acrimony between the private college and well-heeled neighborhood.

Notable for its scope and detail, the agreement could also probably fast-track Suffolk's plans to build the Somerset Street facility, which will include the relocated art school, as well as a 12-story dormitory and studio theater on the site of the historic Modern Theatre on Washington Street.

John Nucci, Suffolk's vice president for external affairs, headed up the negotiations with Beacon Hill neighbors. He said the agreement should ease friction over the proper boundaries of the university.

Suffolk has expanded substantially in recent years as it has transformed from a commuter school to a more residential university.

"It shifts the university's whole center of gravity away from Beacon Hill," Nucci said. "This bodes well for a peaceful coexistence between the Beacon Hill neighborhood and Suffolk."

Robert Whitney, a member of the association's board of directors and the negotiating team, said the agreement gives the thickly settled neighborhood greater protection from future development.

"We know we don't have to worry about Suffolk building in certain areas anymore," he said. "We had reached a saturation point where we really couldn't take any more."

The agreement, he added, will also help accelerate Suffolk's building plans.

Efforts by area colleges to gain more elbow room has frequently generated sparks with their neighbors. Allston-Brighton residents are engaged in intense debates with Boston College and Harvard University over sweeping expansion proposals, and Roxbury neighbors continue to tussle with Northeastern over building plans.

In the face of sharp city and neighborhood resistance, Suffolk withdrew its plan for a high-rise dormitory at 20 Somerset St. in 2006.

The college had previously built a 19-story dorm at 10 Somerset in 2003, its second residence hall.

In a written statement yesterday, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who opposed the previous dorm plan, praised the agreement as a good compromise.

"Universities and colleges are crucial to Boston's economy and prominence, but institutional expansion needs to be done in a way that is in harmony with our great neighborhoods," he said in the statement.

Pending city approval, Suffolk hopes to begin construction on the Modern Theatre site this fall, for an opening in fall 2010. It plans to open 20 Somerset the following year.

Nucci said the association, which has more than 1,000 members, protected its interests aggressively. He also said the enrollment limit for the college, which now has 4,900 students, would not hamper the university's plans.

"We think it's the right size for the university," he said.

Under the deal, Suffolk also pledged not to add classroom seats in the nonexpansion zone, make its paid Boston police details and neighborhood-response units permanent, and remove 400 classroom seats from the Temple Street area and relocate them to the proposed Somerset Street building.

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

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