The Battle of Mission Hill

Town-versus-gown tempers are boiling over near the Northeastern campus, as residents charge the giant school with 'death by incrementalism'
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  June 15, 2010

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NOT GOOD IN THIS HOOD Through the early ’80s, abominable Mission Hill tenements were sometimes deprived of heat, water, and even windows.

Oftentimes, inner-city dwellers who have to routinely phone police about disorderly neighbors fear retribution from gangbangers or drug dealers. That is not the case in Mission Hill, where folks who anonymously told the Phoenix about loud parties and constant intoxicated pandemonium there are instead scared that Northeastern students — whose keggers and illegal porch barbecues often rage until four in the morning — will smash bottles in their back yards and rearrange the side-view mirrors on their cars.

In fact, the incursion by Northeastern students into Mission Hill, the South End, and Roxbury is changing the face of those neighborhoods, and not just via the superficial evidence of broken glass, fire hazards, and mangled property that students leave in their wake. Multi-generational Bostonians are actually being displaced in alarming numbers, as their neighborhoods increasingly become extensions of the institutions that surround them, and as those colleges and universities continue to rapidly expand their campus footprints and inadvertently drive up real-estate prices.

Among the concrete harbingers of change that have particularly riled activists are: 52 existing affordable-housing units near the Mass Ave T station, which Northeastern now owns and can legally inhabit in 2023; that school's magnificent Fenway concert hall that is the former site of the dearly missed St. Ann's community church; and massive Northeastern facilities hovering above Columbus and Huntington avenues.

Adding fuel to the town-versus-gown fire, Northeastern's 10-year Institutional Master Plan (IMP) is approaching its July 13 expiration date. That strategy, initially set in 2000 and finalized in the mid 2000s, was a then-heralded compromise that smoothed the ruffled feathers of locals and university officials after much heated deliberation. The crux of the plan would have moved more than 1800 off-campus students into dormitories by 2012. But Northeastern recently reneged on that deal. Citing economic hardship, the school suspended its IMP this past year and stalled major development indefinitely. Now, with nearly half of Northeastern's 15,000-student population still off-campus and the school offering no plan to absorb those numbers any time soon, an army of residents, marching with state and city politicians, are once again waging war to restrain Goliath.

"Northeastern," says one South End activist, echoing his equally agitated peers in surrounding communities, "has no credibility left around here. What they're doing is the equivalent of death by incrementalism, and we're not going to take it anymore."

Mission Hill Impossible
In the 1970s, Mission Hill was Boston's valley of ashes. Overgrown vacant lots and charred homes marred the landscape; abominable project tenements were sometimes deprived of heat, water, and even windows. Back then, Northeastern was a commuter school on the border of a community in shambles, its reach — and outreach — hardly stretching more than a few blocks off either side of Huntington Avenue. What is now Dodge Hall was an open field; the current site of Northeastern's sports complex was a parking lot.

Around that time, such community organizations as Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services (MHNHS) formed to spearhead projects that significantly improved infrastructure. Local groups have since been remarkably successful in those missions, securing affordable rentals and home ownership resources for thousands of long-term residents, and also playing instrumental roles in such retail-revitalization projects as the $48 million pavilion at One Brigham Circle.

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