Developers of the Roux Institute campus have scaled back their proposal for the former B&M Baked Beans property after prolonged pushback and criticism from East Deering neighbors.
During a remote neighborhood meeting last week, Chuck Hewitt, executive director of the development group Initiative for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, said the scope and scale of the campus design have been reduced by 27 percent in response to the concerns raised by nearby residents.
Hewitt acknowledged some people in the neighborhood still wouldn’t find the proposal acceptable, but said it was a result of listening to community concerns while still hoping to achieve the objective of building a high-tech campus and business incubator in conjunction with Northeastern University.
He said the decision to scale back the proposal was the result of “a lot of soul searching and frankly some anguish.”
Nearly 500,000 square feet of space have been removed from the proposed development, including approximately 300,000 square feet that were earmarked for “institutional and corporate partners.”
Hewitt said that part of the project would have generated the most traffic in and out of the property, so it represents a “disproportionately large” reduction in vehicles.
Neighbors have said traffic is one of their biggest concerns about the project. Sherwood Street is the only way in and out of the property, although Hewitt said the possibility of a future dedicated exit off Interstate 295 into the campus remains under investigation.
He said the developers have also reduced housing on the campus by about 150,000 square feet and retail space by about 140,000 square feet. They will also revise the height map previously submitted to the city as part of an institutional development plan.
Hewitt said taller buildings would be moved to the center of the property, away from the waterfront, which would reduce the visual impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
He said a proposed hotel will be limited to eight stories, with ground-level parking and a maximum of 130 rooms, which will still enable the Roux Institute to provide space for overnight guests and meetings. The hotel will also alleviate some traffic, Hewitt said, because visitors won’t have to leave the campus for lodging.
Sam Reiche, chief operating officer of IDEALS, said the main institute building is expected to be 210,000 square feet and approximately 150 feet tall. Although a 17-story residential building was originally proposed for the campus, Reiche said residential buildings around the campus will be about 75 feet tall around the perimeter.
Hewitt said parking is likely below the main Roux building and perhaps beneath an adjacent courtyard, and will be supplemented by the existing surface parking area on the property.
He also said the existing pier on the property would be torn down and replaced with one that could be used by the public, provide kayak and paddleboard rentals, dock space for an eventual water taxi, and the site of future events, although he didn’t elaborate on what such events might be.
The Roux Institute was created in 2020 with a $100 million donation to Northeastern from IDEALS founders David and Barbara Roux, and now leases space in Portland’s Old Port. It provides graduate-level education in fields including artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, life sciences, and project management.
The 13.5-acre waterfront property was acquired by the developers in September 2021 but was not initially the favorite for the graduate-level campus.
This was the sixth neighborhood meeting the developers held. Hewitt said the plan is to conduct a public site visit in six to eight weeks.
The June 2 meeting was held remotely because of the increase in COVID-19 cases. Several of the 48 attendees asked for meetings to return to in-person, and Hewitt said he hoped all meetings going forward would be in person.
Compared to past meetings, considerably fewer people spoke. Of the 10 who did, most had comments about returning to in-person meetings. Several echoed previous concerns about parking and traffic.
Even with the efforts to reduce traffic, neighbor Chris Briley said, Sherwood Street would still be “a problem and an issue.”
“You’ve already predetermined it’s going to be a traffic nightmare,” he said.
The developers still hope to break ground within the next 18 months, with buildout in phases over several years.
In the first phase, Reiche said, the main building would be constructed on the southeast side of the property. The hotel and a residential building would also be built, and the B&M manufacturing building will be renovated for use as a business incubator.
The proposal will have its first Planning Board workshop on June 14. The developers have applied for an Institutional Overlay Zone, which would create a special zone or district over an existing zone. There will be at least one, and probably several workshops before the board holds a public hearing and makes a recommendation to the City Council.
Councilors will have a similar review process before voting on the overlay zone.