Over His Dead Body

The competitive nature of modern-day academia mandates that schools grow or die. In a letter announcing his school’s first purchase of archdiocesan property, BC president Father William P. Leahy wrote, "To have an expanded future, you need a place on which to build it." His local peers certainly share that outlook. Boston University is overhauling its residential, athletics, and recreational buildings, spurred in part by envy over Northeastern’s $15 million fitness complex, the Marino Center. Suffolk University has a proposed million square feet of residential and academic development in its pipeline. And then there’s Harvard’s Allston master plan, which envisions the transformation of an entire neighborhood.

Competitive pressures dictate that Boston College respond in kind. But BC doesn’t want to just keep up: A strategic plan completed in December 2007 reveals the school’s dreams of "becoming the leader in liberal arts education among American universities." Not a leader. The. Then there’s the rapidly evolving, increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science research, which demands that colleges invest heavily in new facilities to remain in contention for grant money. BC has already upgraded athletically, jumping from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005, chasing the prestige—and huge television revenues—enjoyed by the nation’s athletic powerhouses. And to vie for athletes with the likes of Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, and Duke, you need new gyms, new dorms, new playing fields.

Not that you would get a sense of these boundless aspirations from BC’s public statements about its real estate dealings. When the college bought its first 43 acres from the archdiocese in 2004, BC officials painted themselves as their neighbors’ allies, saying the purchase would protect that part of Brighton from overdevelopment. Press reports spoke in broad strokes about the school using its new land for green space, parking lots, and back-office administration. Says one person who has dealt with the college for years, "They talked about kids playing Frisbee."

"Plenty of people had been told by BC since 2004 that the college wouldn’t build dorms on the archdiocesan land," says Michael Pahre, who lives up the street from the seminary. Two months after that property sale went through, the mayor’s task force on BC expansion sent the school a letter saying the neighborhood would oppose any dorms in Brighton, and for three years BC honored that sentiment. But in early 2007, in a move O’Connell himself surely would have appreciated, college officials suddenly decided to drop 600 undergraduate beds in the middle of the property. The old bait and switch was in play.

"They sprang it on us," recalls Alex Selvig, a Lake Street resident whose opposition to BC’s expansion prompted an unsuccessful run for city council last year. "It horrified people." One of those people, in public comments reflecting a broader hysteria, said that if BC followed through on its new construction agenda, "our lives will turn into a living hell." Others accused the college of being an "insensitive and arrogant" institution, of seeking to "systematically destroy our neighborhood." Another panned the college administration a
s "gold-plated idiots." At an April meeting between the college and Brighton residents, one woman compared BC to "a giant ogre stepping on things."

The name-calling has gone both ways. BC spokesman Jack Dunn has said some of the school’s Brighton opponents are "ardent obstructionists." He has also said, "Everyone wants to see college students live on campus, unless they happen to live close to campus." (Dunn declined to comment for this story, and another BC official did not return phone calls.)

In December, the college filed master planning paperwork with the city of Boston. The documents foretell a $1.6 billion spending spree that goes well beyond creating a place for students to play Frisbee. The 65-acre parcel of former archdiocesan land would see a 76,000-square-foot fine arts facility, three undergraduate dormitories (now totaling only 500 beds, a magnanimous gesture by BC), townhouses for theology graduate students, renovated archdiocesan buildings for academic and office use, a 500-car parking garage, and a 2,000-seat baseball and softball complex attached to a 100,000-square-foot field house. Using the seminary land for dorms and playing fields would then allow BC to build a 285,000-square-foot university center, some smaller undergrad dorms, and a 200,000-square-foot athletic and recreation center across the street, on the main Chestnut Hill campus. That would be 1.9 million square feet under construction—just in the 10 years the official planning document covers.