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NU plan for dorm faces new roadblock

Historic panel sees an ‘adverse effect’

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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Northeastern University faces a new and significant roadblock in its efforts to construct a 17-story dormitory behind the century-old Huntington Avenue YMCA.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission said that demolishing the YMCA’s gymnasium to construct the $75 million building would have “an adverse effect’’ on the YMCA, the neighboring New England Conservatory of Music, and nearby historic districts, including the South End Landmark District and Lower Roxbury Historic District.

“The size and scale of the new construction overwhelms the historic YMCA building and thus alters the setting of the historic property,’’ the commission said in a March 14 letter. The commission said it fears that the dormitory will block sunlight and overshadow an area of two- to five-story buildings constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The commission suggested NU consider other locations, or low-rise buildings.

Before the project can move forward, it must receive approval from the historical commission, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Boston Landmarks Commission.

The Landmarks Commission this month ordered the university to delay any construction until early June, and demonstrate that they considered other possible sites. And the BRA said it plans to review the issues raised by the historical commission, but that it supports NU’s efforts to house more students in dormitories. NU has promised to add 1,800 student beds on campus, as part of an effort to reduce the impact of students on residential neighborhoods.

“The city and the [Boston Redevelopment Authority] are supportive of Northeastern University’s solution to fulfill its commitment to the city,’’ authority spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said in a statement. “These new dormitories will help ease the burden on the neighborhood’s housing stock, and working families in our city.’’

Northeastern says it is operating on a tight deadline. Construction would have to begin this summer for the dorm, which would house 720 undergraduates, to open in August 2013.

“They are under tremendous pressure to build because we are losing many of our neighborhoods to what’s become kind of an off-campus campus,’’ said City Councilor Michael Ross.

John Tobin, a former city councilor who is now Northeastern’s vice president of city and community relations, said all of the historical commission’s concerns will be addressed.

“The team is on them right now,’’ Tobin said, adding that he’s not worried about the dormitory’s effect on the surrounding area. “This design, and the building, has been shown multiple times. It’s a really good-looking building, and it fits nicely there.’’

The first phase of the university’s efforts to keep its student housing pledge went into effect last year with the opening of International Village, a 1,200-bed residence hall at Tremont Street and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

The YMCA project has been altered since it was first disclosed. In October, Northeastern, the YMCA of Greater Boston, and Phoenix Property Co. agreed that Phoenix would purchase two of three sections of the YMCA’s headquarters on Huntington Avenue for about $21.5 million. But Tobin said Friday that Northeastern will now buy the YMCA’s Hastings Wing, for about $10 million, while Phoenix will buy the other section.

The Hastings Wing already houses four floors of Northeastern classrooms and student housing and several nonprofit tenants.

The YMCA will continue to own part of the building and keep its headquarters there. The Y plans to use the money from the sale to renovate the building.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make a reinvestment of this building,’’ said Kelley Rice, spokeswoman for the YMCA of Greater Boston. “We want to deliver to the community a contemporary facility that’s more welcoming.’’

Rice said the main building’s facade and the architectural detail on the Hastings Wing will remain, and so will the huge YMCA sign.

But many Y members have voiced opposition to the plans. More than 1,000 of the organization’s 2,700 members signed a petition opposing the dorm project to prevent Phoenix Co. from buying the St. Botolph wing and turning it into dorms for Northeastern.

“This is much more than a gym,’’ said Calvin Arey, the organizer of the petition drive and a member of the YMCA for 15 years. Arey praised the diversity of the YMCA’s membership and its success at fostering relationships.

“Some of my friends who are members of the Y were brought there as kids by their parents,’’ he said. “I’ve made lifelong friends there.’’

Ross said he understands the YMCA members’ concerns, but thinks the project can succeed.

“The plan,’’ he said, “will not sacrifice the majority of the services that the YMCA offers.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.