Residents of East Deering believe the size and scope of the planned Roux Institute campus on the former B&M Baked Beans property, and the traffic it will create, are not right for the neighborhood.
The plan calls for construction of several new buildings, including a hotel of at least 17 stories with a restaurant, bar, and retail space; a residential building; plus academic, research, and administrative space for the graduate-level technology and research hub of Northeastern University.
During a Feb. 1 neighborhood meeting, Chuck Hewett, executive director of the Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences – which helped create the Roux Institute, bring in Northeastern, and acquire the B&M property – said IDEALS is committed to building a campus that will create a pipeline of people who will become 21st-century business leaders.
He described a plan to retain the iconic B&M building as a business incubator, while also creating new buildings on the campus that would be a “model of sustainability.”
But neighborhood residents are less keen on the development plans – specifically the height and scale of some buildings, the non-educational buildings proposed, and the increased level of traffic that will be associated with the campus.
Not the least of the concerns is that there is only one way in and out of the property: Sherwood Street, off Veranda Street.
Lennox Street resident Allison Brown said most of her neighbors knew and accepted that the B&M plant would be sold at some point, and believe a university campus is a better outcome than a condominium development.
But she said the proposed hotel will overwhelm the neighborhood and the intersection of Washington Avenue and Veranda Street, which already has “tens of thousands of cars” passing through each day.
“I don’t think they’ve really analyzed it enough,” Brown said.
Hewett said IDEALS explored construction of a dedicated exit off Interstate 295 for the campus, but that option was determined not to be viable.
Brown said there are also concerns about the overlay zone requested for the proposal, which is a tool that previously allowed the University of New England and Maine Medical Center to build out projects over time with a density that wouldn’t otherwise fit under existing zoning in their neighborhoods.
She said while the Roux Institute will likely grow over the next 10-20 years, no one knows exactly how big it will become, so the overlay zone will provide an opportunity for almost unrestrained buildout.
Brown also said there are concerns about city finances, since B&M’s waterfront property was one of the most valuable taxable parcels in the city, and would theoretically come off the tax roll as it shifts to a nonprofit. At the same time, residential property taxes – especially for homes near the water in East Deering – continue to increase.
A hotel, restaurant, bar, and retail businesses, she noted, don’t meet the definition of nonprofit.
“The city is very excited about this,” Brown added. “My experience with City Hall and the Planning Board, when they get excited, they move pretty quickly and forget about the people who live around these projects. I want to make sure that some of these issues, particularly traffic, are really explored.”
Cheryl Leeman, a former mayor and city councilor who runs the East Deering Neighborhood Association, said she also has concerns about the scope and scale of the proposal, which she described as a massive mixed-use development.
Leeman said the hotel, restaurant, and bar components do not belong on an educational campus; she suggested a smaller version of the proposal that could be better integrated with the neighborhood.
“The neighbors have raised legitimate concerns about the massive scale, height of buildings, and traffic issues associated with the proposal, along with questions about the ancillary uses of a 125-150 room hotel, pub, coffee shops, offices, and small grocery store being substantially supportive of an academic purpose,” she said in a prepared statement.
Watson Street resident Phil Hoose said the size, scope, and traffic implications are the issues that concern him and many other neighbors who have also formed a group called East Deering Neighbors for Responsible Development. He said he doesn’t object to a college tech hub, but “the scale is so, so enormous” and would disrupt traffic, especially at the intersection of Veranda Street and Washington Boulevard.
“We recognize it’s an area for development and we anticipated it would be developed at some point,” he said. “But we want it developed responsibly. And with this scale, none of us think that’s what’s happening.”
IDEALS and the Roux Institute still need various permissions from the city, including the overlay zone to allow future growth and development while preventing sprawl. They will also be requesting a zone change to B5, which is the same zone attached to the former industrial property at Thompson’s Point.
Hewett said density is key to achieving the goal of a campus that will house a competitive university and technology hub, which is why the hotel and residential components of the plan are important. He said they have also looked at having a conference center attached to the hotel or university.
Kevin Kraft, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Urban Development, said the Planning Board will consider the overlay zone application, which has not yet been submitted, before making a recommendation to the City Council on any zoning changes.
“We anticipate a first Planning Board workshop being held later this year,” Kraft said.