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Private, independent Boston dormitory might not happen after all

City planners urge developer to tweak plans for what would have been a first-of-its-kind project in the city and maybe the nation

Rendering of a multi-story, glassy dormitory in downtown Boston. Rendering courtesy of Scape

One of the more novel approaches to easing Boston’s housing crunch appears to have crashed against the shoals of neighborhood opposition.

British firm Scape had intended to construct a 15-story, 533-bed independent student dormitory at 1252-1270 Boylston Street in Fenway—a beachhead for what is supposed to be a major Stateside expansion for Scape, which currently operates dorms in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia. The building would likely be the first of its kind in the entire nation, in fact.

The Fenway project is supposed to also be the first in a trio of Scape developments in Boston that would not be affiliated with any particular school, but that would be open to verified undergraduate and graduate students.

And that’s the problem, as some locals see it. Such a dorm—however it’s designed or marketed—would be out of scale for Boylston Street and out of bounds of current zoning, they say.

In particular, the dorm plan runs afoul of 15-year-old zoning rules forbidding dorms along Boylston. That ruling was designed to encourage both general housing in student-heavy Fenway and schools to build dorms on their campuses.

The Scape project isn’t dead necessarily, but it could be reeling. Scape CEO Andrew Flynn said in a statement to the Globe that “we will work to incorporate and respond to the feedback we’ve received.”

Some of that feedback includes tweaking the project so it’s more like a conventional apartment building. This is from what the Boston Planning and Development Agency calls a scoping determination for the project, released July 18 and including feedback from residents, some of whom were enthused about the possibility.

Through these findings, the planning team requests that [Scape] explore the viability of alternate models that would allow a mix of students and older, working households. The proponent must continue to engage the community to address their concerns about how a dormitory use would impact their neighborhood and what steps they will take to mitigate it.

As mentioned, Scape’s plan—and the idea of indy, private dorms in general—does have its fans. Barry Bluestone, a longtime analyst of the Boston region’s housing woes and professor emeritus at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, hailed Scape’s plans in a June op-ed in the Globe.

The alternative—building new housing for working families—isn’t feasible. We know from developers’ records that the all-in cost of new housing now exceeds $300 per square foot. Few working families are in a position to pay up to $600,000 for a new home.

Scape-type housing is good for everyone, then—working families, students, and young professionals alike. I am hopeful that the developer will receive a warm welcome from the Fenway community and from all of Boston, and that we will see similar innovative projects throughout the region.

Stay tuned.