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City wants BC to pay more for dorm plan

Menino fears revenue loss if apartments are converted

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 9, 2008

In the latest clash in an increasingly public quarrel, Mayor Thomas M. Menino called on Boston College yesterday to increase its voluntary payments to the city to offset tax revenue lost as a result of the school's recent $67 million purchase of a high-rise apartment complex on Commonwealth Avenue.

As part of its $1 billion expansion plan, the college wants to turn the building, located about a third of a mile from the university's Chestnut Hill campus, into a dormitory for more than 500 students. Menino announced his opposition to the plan last week and urged the college to house all its students on its main campus.

BC officials say that the main campus, which has 4,700 students on 40 acres, is too crowded for the necessary dorm space and that they need to convert the Commonwealth Avenue property to meet the housing demand for all its undergraduates.

Yesterday, Menino, through his main spokeswoman, renewed his criticism of Boston College, taking aim at the amount the university pays in place of taxes.

"He believes BC should make that up somehow," said the mayor's press secretary, Dorothy Joyce. "They don't do as much as their counterparts, and he'd like to see them do more."

Menino wants BC to pay the city the $424,000 it will lose in taxes from the Commonwealth Avenue property, as well as additional community benefits "to moderate the impact on the neighborhood," if the building is converted to a dormitory, Joyce said.

BC officials said they were willing to discuss the mayor's request as the city's review of the expansion plan moves forward.

"Boston College is happy to have discussions with the mayor on these matters and looks forward to doing so," said college spokesman Jack Dunn. Dunn said such discussions would probably take place later this summer, when the college and city negotiate a community benefits package around the proposed expansion.

The university, with a campus divided between Newton and Boston, pays Boston $261,000 annually, less than many of its Boston counterparts. Boston University pays $4.6 million and an additional $3.5 million in property taxes. Harvard pays $1.8 million a year; and Northeastern pays $141,000, city officials said.

Dunn defended BC's level of community support, saying the university provides more than $5 million worth of community service to Boston and Newton, including volunteer efforts in local schools and nonprofit agencies.

"In terms of community benefits, Boston College is among the most generous colleges and universities in the city," Dunn said. Dunn added that the mayor "has a friend in Boston College," and that reports of tensions between the two sides were overblown.

The growing friction between the university and Menino is more than political backbiting. BC's plan, which it describes as critical to its future, needs the approval of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, whose board is dominated by Menino appointees.

The mayor has also expressed frustration over the university's recent efforts to have alumni contact city officials and state representatives to register their support for the plan. Menino said the lobbying is premature because the expansion plan was only recently filed for official city review.

As nonprofits, colleges are exempt from taxes on most of their property, often vast amounts of valuable land, but most agree to pay their host communities for some of the lost revenue and the cost of municipal services.

In Boston, colleges typically provide additional community benefit packages in negotiations over their expansion plans. Earlier this year, for example, Harvard University agreed to pay $24 million in community benefits to offset the impact of a $1 billion science center in North Allston.

Mayor David B. Cohen of Newton recently announced that he plans to approach BC officials about increasing their payments, now $100,000 a year. Jeremy Solomon, director of policy and communications for the city, said the city's fiscal struggles following the rejection of a $12 million tax measure prompted the move.

"It's clear we need to explore every revenue opportunity out there," he said, adding that the payments had not increased in a decade.

BC contributes to Newton in a variety of nonfinancial ways, such as providing community service and free courses for city employees, Solomon added.

College officials say the addition of housing for almost 1,300 students, including new dormitories on its Brighton campus, will dramatically reduce neighborhood complaints over disruptive students.

Tim Burke, a member of a task force reviewing BC's plan, said he supported the mayor's push.

"There's too much tax-free land in the city already," he said. "It's not fair to the neighbors. We're picking up the cost."

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