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Northeastern's Columbus Ave. Plan Not an Academic Exercise

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Northeastern University plans to transform a surface parking lot on Columbus Avenue into a transit-oriented, mixed-use academic hub on an inviting public green as the first project of its new 10-year institutional master plan.

The plan was informally unveiled in early drafts of the university's plan, which was required of all large nonprofit institutions under the city's Article 80 development review process. The university is working with urban planners, community members, and state and local officials to finalize the plan, meeting regularly for months to listen, discuss, and contemplate how to accommodate community concerns and Northeastern's projected need for growth over the next decade.

The Columbus Avenue project must come first to allow the university to vacate older facilities, which would subsequently be redeveloped. The large expanse of asphalt, adjacent to bus, rapid transit, and commuter rail service at Ruggles Station, would be transformed into a mixed-use academic hub centered on an inviting green public square open to Columbus Avenue that would reinforce the Southwest Corridor Park.

It is perhaps the most dramatic change revealed in the not-yet-finalized plan and is emblematic of the changing approach to institutional development in Boston, approach that now provides amenities to the general public and integrates with the existing urban fabric. This contrasts with past institutional development, which was inward-looking and provided refuge from the urban environment by presenting physical and psychological barriers to neighboring communities.

Other notable components of the plan include the redevelopment of the Gainsborough parking garage into new athletic facilities, which would allow Northeastern to vacate the Cabot Gym on Huntington Avenue and redevelop the site as a gateway mixed-use development with academic and dorm space.

Throughout the process university officials have highlighted the positive changes Northeastern has brought to the neighborhood. Over the years, the Roxbury side of the university has been home to an active railroad corridor, factories, early era professional baseball fields, parking lots, and student housing. Much of the neighborhood was leveled by eminent domain takings and neighborhood clearance in the 1960s to make way for a planned extension of Interstate 95 through downtown Boston.

The plan provoked fierce opposition from the inner-city communities affected, leading to the cancellation of the highway and a turning point in transportation planning in the United States as federal funds earmarked for the highway project were used instead to bring mass transit and amenities to the neighborhood. The result was extension of the Orange Line, creation of the Southwest Corridor Park, and construction of Melnea Cass Boulevard.

But Roxbury adjacent to Northeastern has lagged behind other neighborhoods in recovering from this era, and the Columbus Avenue parking lot is a prominent void next to Ruggles Station. The redevelopment of the lot would join a growing list of large-scale development projects in the area meant to replace vacant swaths of the city cleared for the highway project or by urban renewal, signaling a renaissance in Roxbury. Public investment in the area will also transform nearby Melnea Cass Boulevard into a more transit- and pedestrian-friendly environment, and restore Dudley Square.

Northeastern University and the Boston Redevelopment Authority hope to complete the planning process by the end of the year, potentially allowing the Columbus Avenue project to proceed in 2013. More than just another academic development in Boston, the redevelopment of the lot would symbolize the neighborhood's rebirth. — A. Contributor

· Dudley Done Right: Slice of Roxbury Busy, Busy, Busy [Curbed Boston]
· Our Construction Watch archive [Curbed Boston]

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