Over His Dead Body

Because here’s the thing: Boston College still thirsts for more. For the past three years, for example, it has tried to grab away from the state a 4-acre slice of land called Beer Can Hill. And if the school visits untold disaster upon the entire metro area in the process? That’s merely the cost of doing business.

As the name implies, Beer Can Hill is a small mount—specifically, a 32-foot-high heavy rock ledge—that BC students frequently litter with alcoholic detritus. Controlled by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), it’s sandwiched between the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and BC’s lower campus. The hill also sits atop a critical juncture in the subterranean system that pipes drinking water into Boston. According to a source close to the talks between Boston College and the MWRA, the school has said it wants to level the hill and use it for nothing more than soccer fields. A bit cavalier, considering that if Beer Can Hill collapsed, some 2 million people would lose water for days, if not weeks, says one MWRA source.

BC knew that it would face opposition to its plans, so it hired an engineering team that told the MWRA’s engineers, "We could do it safely." When the agency’s board disagreed, the college brought in some political muscle: Jack Brennan, a lobbyist, former state senator, and close ally of ex–Senate President (and BC alum) William Bulger. Brennan’s 2007 filings with the state show him performing work on BC’s master plan and other unspecified "property issues." He’s also made campaign donations to the elected officials whose districts abut the college: state Senator Steven Tolman and state Representatives Michael Moran, Kevin Honan, and Frank Smizik. But those efforts notwithstanding, his firm’s lobbying of the MWRA board on BC’s behalf—"It was some heavy stuff," the MWRA source says—didn’t work. Last November, the board passed a resolution condemning the proposed plans, citing the potentially dire consequences of any damage to the water lines.

Still, no one thinks that setback will really stop BC. Asked whether the college is still interested in buying Beer Can Hill, Moran replies, "I haven’t asked, but I don’t have to ask that question to get an answer. They were interested in it 30 years ago, and they’ll still want it 30 years in the future."

If BC only understands brute force, which seems to be the case, its Brighton neighbors are lucky to have an ally in William Galvin. Along with living on Lake Street for decades, he is a BC alum, and in general not a man you want mad at you. In a career built on high-stakes conflicts, he’s taken on much bigger game than Boston College (Putnam Investments, Merrill Lynch, and the entire hedge fund sector, to name three—and that’s just in the past five years). And in the case against his alma mater, he doesn’t like what he sees.

In February, Galvin sent a letter of protest to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Taking pains to remind the BRA that he was writing as a concerned resident and not a public official, Galvin blasted BC’s proposed expansion. He condemned the college’s long-standing "encroaching presence" in Brighton, not to mention this particular "dramatic incursion into the existing residential community" for having "the potential to destroy the quality of life of the nontransient residents." BC’s construction plans, Galvin wrote, would represent "a dramatic change of use" for the land, one that "overwhelms and ultimately destroys the residential neighborhoods."

While Galvin the private citizen opposes BC’s plans on personal grounds, an office that he oversees, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, could very publicly make the school miserable. If, that is, someone atop the historical commission were so inclined. (Ever shrewd, Galvin declined to comment for this story.)

What the commission has already done is issue a five-page letter decrying BC’s plans and warning that new construction—especially dorms—would ruin the surrounding historic neighborhood, implying, in effect, that BC couldn’t do more harm if it were to torch all of Lake Street. Most notably, however, it raised the cause of one Cardinal O’Connell, whose remains lie uncomfortably close to the planned parking garage’s footprint.

In 1928, a year after moving to the seminary, O’Connell allegedly oversaw the disinterment of at least one Sulpician priest who’d been buried on the grounds. The "allegedly" is key—since if it didn’t actually happen, then there are Sulpician bodies still stuffed into unmarked graves on BC’s new land. Sulpician bodies stuffed into unmarked graves would fall under the historical commission’s purview. And that would make BC’s new buildings harder to build. James O’Toole, O’Connell’s biographer, says there’s "a strong oral tradition among the Boston clergy" that more than one Sulpician was buried on the site, though he’s "virtually certain" that none remain today. The archdiocese doesn’t have history on its side, though: In 2006, construction workers in Roxbury
discovered the corpses of 600 unidentified people on the grounds of a demolished church.

Galvin—or his office’s—interest in these unmarked graves, however legitimate, could do more than wreak havoc on BC’s construction schedule. It could stop it entirely. The college will likely try to tap some form of public funds in its quest to build out the chancery grounds, and if it does, that will give the historical commission a) statutory oversight, and b) standing in court. This means Galvin can reserve the right to sue BC, something no one, in particular his enraged neighbors, has been able to do. Strategically, he’d have good reason to. He and everyone else know BC doesn’t need another drawn-out court battle: A dozen years ago, BC fought with the city of Newton over a student center the school wanted to build. In 2003, BC finally won a favorable ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but by then it had abandoned the project. The lesson: You don’t need to beat Boston College. You just need to outlast it.

Boston College was also looking to expand a century ago. The school, then in the South End, was confined to a single city block, and as the surrounding neighborhood gained population, that density cut off any future growth for BC. So, in 1907, with encour
agement and aid from Cardinal O’Connell (an 1881 BC graduate), it packed up and moved to what was then farmland in Chestnut Hill. Today, of course, the school is accused of carrying the same imperial air that brought it west and made O’Connell famous. The difference is that this time BC doesn’t have the cardinal on its side. By conscripting his bones into the fight, Galvin’s historic commission may have at last found the lever that can thwart the school.

O’Connell, we can safely guess, would like that ending. Because while bad for BC, it would also mean that, from his perch high atop that hill, looking down on us all, the cardinal still runs this town.