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Globe Editorial

Suffolk steps forward

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December 11, 2007

SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY learns from its losses. After last year's bruising and unsuccessful attempt to build a 22-story dormitory at 20 Somerset St., on the edge of Beacon Hill, the university is back with a creative and practical 10-year master plan to expand its campus.

For starters, Suffolk is proposing to construct a 10-story art and design school on the contested Somerset Street site. The building would not exceed the height of the dilapidated building that sits there now - the headquarters of the old Metropolitan District Commission.

Many opponents of the dorm project on Beacon Hill indicated last year that they would not object to administrative or classroom space there. But opposition to the current proposal seems to be gaining strength among some on Beacon Hill who are suspicious of any aspect of university expansion.

Few issues in Boston are more challenging than finding the right balance between residential and institutional uses in neighborhoods. Universities bring enormous energy and revenue to the city, but they also bring considerable headaches from students, who sometimes misbehave and inevitably drive up housing costs when they live off campus. It's rare when obvious compromises suggest themselves. The Somerset Street site could be the exception.

Beacon Hill residents should consider dropping their resistance to the art and design school in exchange for a non-expansion agreement with Suffolk University on Beacon Hill. Robert Whitney, a board member of the dug-in Beacon Hill Civic Association, thinks such a solution might assuage opponents of the project. And John Nucci, a vice president of Suffolk University, says the university would "consider a non-expansion plan" for Beacon Hill.

Suffolk recently established the precedent for such a compromise in Downtown Crossing, where a new dorm for 274 Suffolk students is expected to open next month on West Street. More beds are planned above the Modern Theater on lower Washington Street. But most opposition to the dorms melted away when Suffolk offered neighbors a non-expansion zone between Boylston and Winter streets.

Over the next decade, Suffolk will also be scouting space for a new athletic facility, additional academic space, and 800 undergraduate residences. Wisely, it is pledging to explore Court Street, New Chardon Street, and other downtown areas instead of saturating a single congested neighborhood with new development. Such a plan, however, is only as good as the ability of Suffolk police and outreach workers to control student behavior.

Bostonians are willing to share their neighborhoods with colleges and universities. But they will resist if they fear being overrun.

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