Sunday, May 18, 2008

Suffolk University and Beacon Hill

Each night the last week I attended at least one local civic meeting or event. The most important, in my opinion, was a public meeting hosted by the BRA on Thursday regarding Suffolk. I posted earlier that Senator John Kerry was to speak at the Ward 5 Democratic Committee meeting that night. Senator Kerry had to cancel, which allowed me to attend the Suffolk meeting instead.

To recap, Suffolk is currently writing a new Institutional Master Plan (IMP), an important document required by the Boston Redevelopment Authority to outline Suffolk's plans for development for the next ten years. Suffolk is discussing the plan and working through issues with a task force, organized by the BRA, of neighbors, city officials and Suffolk executives. Suffolk submitted its IMP for review in mid-April, and there is a sixty-day review period. The meeting this past Thursday was an opportunity for the public to give its feedback to the IMP and ask questions.

The reason Suffolk is causing problems is classic "town and gown." Many of Suffolk's buildings are on Beacon Hill. Suffolk students walk around the neighborhood, eat here and live here. Suffolk has grown quite a bit in the last five years or so, meaning more students are here. Some students are pretty bad neighbors.

Suffolk wants to continue to develop its facilities and programs, and it likes being located in downtown Boston. Many that live near Suffolk buildings feel that the institution has too much of a negative impact on the neighborhood. Some even believe Suffolk should sell its buildings on Beacon Hill and move away.
Here are my thoughts on the topic:

1) I have not been to every Suffolk meeting. I went to the public meeting Thursday, and previously went to a public meeting in late January. I can tell you one thing. Suffolk is trying very hard to work with the neighborhoods. I saw significant evidence that they are willing to compromise with Beacon Hill. They have proposed enlarging the current non-expansion zone in place on Beacon Hill to include, among other spots, the area where the 100 Cambridge building is and where the Bowdoin Street condominiums are. That's important to me.

2) Key to the debate is the definition of expansion. Suffolk currently has roughly 5200 students. Actually they record them as "full-time-equivalent" students-- or "FTE's"-- a number that is a tad lower than the actually student number. Suffolk currently has an enrollment of about 4800 FTE. Per the IMP, they want to stop growing at 5000 FTE. This means while the FTE number has grown significantly over the past five years, it's not going to grow that much more. It follows to me that the number of students around Beacon Hill is not going to increase much in the coming years.

Now there are a lot of hidden aspects to the FTE number, some of which I am still investigating. Like how much of the FTE number is commuter students, or students who don't need to live anywhere near the campus. If the commuter percentage decreases, it follows that more students will be living near the campus. In addition, Suffolk doesn't have a good track record holding to FTE promises made in previous IMPs. Suffolk acknowledges this and says it will stick to the number.

3) Are students *really* that bad? I live on the north slope of Beacon Hill, near many younger residents. I rent, and this side of the hill has more rental properties that are less expensive, relatively speaking. I hear loud parties all the time, because on Beacon Hill, we all live on top of each other. But I am not sure how many of the parties are actually students. Many are, I am sure. But how many are young professionals like me? Is the issue here one of working with students and enabling them to be better neighbors, or is it an issue of engaging younger, mostly single, residents? How are those two issues related? How much of the reaction to the Suffolk issue is really evidence of this larger issue?

I don't think Suffolk should move off of Beacon Hill. I think they have a place here. I appreciate what they've done to try to compromise with the neighborhood. There's rhetoric on either side. I can say at this point, if Suffolk agrees to enlarging the non-expansion zone and really agrees to cap its FTE growth numbers, I think they will have done quite a bit to limit the impact of their plans on Beacon Hill.

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