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A C A S E S T U D Y O F D A V E N P O R T C O M M O N S
Allegra Calder, Gabriel Grant and Holly Hart Muson
April 1, 2002
NOTE TO URBAN RESEARCH WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS This case study is intended to contribute to the course materials for professional development workshops at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and will be included in an edited, published
volume, titled The University as Developer
(2003). Interviews with the key project players are still
underway and will continue throughout the spring. This rough draft is provided to give workshop
participants the project background and some details about the process in preparation for Friday’s presentation. In addition to the case study, the presentation will also focus on broader questions
related to universities as major landowners and real estate developers.
Davenport Commons is an innovative combined student residence and community homeownership
project developed by Northeastern University and three local partners in response to issues that
impact many urban universities across the country. Located in Boston’s Lower Roxbury
neighborhood, Davenport Commons is situated on a formerly vacant parcel that was bulldozed
during the late 1960s period of urban renewal to construct an interstate highway. Although the
highway was never built, the parcel remained vacant for a generation and served as a symbol to the
Roxbury community of the City’s neglect of the neighborhood. Like many urban universities,
Northeastern has inadequate developable land inside its traditional campus boundaries and thus
faced with the need to expand looked to its neighboring community, Lower Roxbury, for
development opportunities. Development, however, is particularly controversial in a property market
like Boston’s, characterized by a shortage of available vacant land. Upon hearing the plans for
Davenport Commons, many in the community opposed the project, afraid that it marked the
beginning of the University’s invasion of Roxbury - a process they feared would leave long-time
residents behind. Due in large part to the history of the parcel and adverse “Town Gown” relations,
the project proved to be highly contentious.
In an effort to address the complex and often competing interests of all of the parties involved, a
partnership called Madison Davenport Partners consisting of Northeastern University, a community
development corporation, and two private development firms, was formed to carry out the project.
The completed project consists of 125 units housing 595 students and 15 staff, 75 owner occupied
condominiums, 15 of which are located a few blocks away, and 2,100 square feet of retail space and
is heralded as a great success by virtually everyone involved.
This chapter describes how Davenport Commons came together, from both a community relations
and transactional standpoint, and seeks to provide insight for universities, developers and community
development corporations considering similar projects.
The Need for Housing
Home to world-famous institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, greater Boston has over sixty institutions of higher education, which play a vital role in
the city’s economic and cultural life. According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), in
1998, there were approximately 135,000 higher education students living in the City of Boston.1 Of
that number, only about 28,000, or 20 percent, lived in university-provided housing (Tong 2000).
1 This refers to Boston proper and does not include Cambridge.
Because students are willing to double and triple up room occupancy they can often afford higher rents than other residents to live near campus. “According to the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance, the student demand for off-campus housing in Allston Brighton, for example, drives up monthly rents by approximately $175” (Bluestone et al 2001: 9). In addition to the large number of students in the private housing market, Boston’s strong economy has strained the already tight housing market as job growth and an appetite for urban living have attracted an influx of people to the city. Consequently, students and residents compete for accommodation in a market where demand far exceeds supply, resulting in rental prices that are among the highest in the nation2 (Bluestone et. al. 2000). The combination of a steady turnover of student tenants and high rents driven by a constrained housing market produces few incentives for landlords to spend much time or money on maintenance. Many residents in Allston-Brighton, home to about 23 percent of off-campus Boston student housing, worry that a sense of community and pride in ownership are under threat (Gelzinis 1998). Residents also object to poorly maintained, overcrowded housing and the presence of loud or inebriated students (ibid.). To help stabilize local housing markets, universities have increasingly been called upon to provide housing for their students. A New Paradigm for Housing in Greater Boston,
a recent report prepared by the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, calls upon local universities to provide 7,500 new student housing units over five years. This would, in theory, ease the pressure on the housing market and benefit the institutions.
2 According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Boston is the ninth least affordable metropolitan statistical area. National Low Income Housing Coalition. 2001. Out of Reach: America’s Growing Wage-Rent Disparity. September. Available at: http://www.nlihc.org/oor2001/index.htm (October 18, 2001).
Northeastern University grew out of the Boston Young Men’s Christian Association’s (YMCA)
Evening Institute which was established in the late nineteenth century to educate the local
population, comprised largely of first-generation Americans and new immigrants. Over time the
school added new programs and colleges, and in 1948, Northeastern and the YMCA formally
separated. In the 1960s, as the University enrolled more students from outside the region, it
constructed its first dormitories. Today Northeastern has about 22,500 students: approximately 29
percent come from out of the state and 5 percent are from outside the US.
Northeastern defines itself as a “national research university that is student-centered, practice
oriented, and urban” (NEU website). President Richard Freeland frequently emphasizes the school’s
role in the city, "We are totally the opposite of Harvard. We celebrate our open edges-so nobody can
miss the point that we are open to the city" (Klenotic 2000). Northeastern borders three distinct
neighborhoods: the Fenway, Lower Roxbury and Mission Hill. (MORE ABOUT THE
CHARACTER OF NEIGHBORHOODS) The quality of the surrounding environment directly
affects the competitive advantage of a university, which is crucial to attracting and retaining the best
students and faculty. Parents want a safe environment for their children and students desire
convenient retail and entertainment options and quality housing. As a major, place-based institution,
Northeastern depends on the health of its local community and consequently has an interest in
keeping it a vibrant and safe place.
The end of rent control and increasing numbers of resident students greatly impacted the demand
for on campus or university-operated housing at Northeastern. The University has rented space from
nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology, Emmanuel College, a youth hostel and the YMCA.
Students willing to commute from their parents’ homes are provided with a parking space or public
transportation passes. For the latter half of the 1990s, the University has confronted a housing crisis.
When Freeland took over as President in 1996, a working group made up of university administrators
had been meeting for about a year to figure out how to house more students. The working group had
proposed building student housing off campus, however, it was aware of the political difficulties such
a proposal would encounter. In order to move the group forward from discussion to action, Freeland
engaged Amy Anthony, President of Housing Investments, Inc., as an advisor. Anthony’s
involvement was emblematic of the school’s awareness of the sensitive local political climate and
recognition that advocates from outside the institution would be critical.
History of Davenport Commons
By 1996, providing adequate housing for students was one of the main challenges confronting the
City of Boston. The Boston Redevelopment Authority published a report outlining the problem and
Mayor Thomas Menino began strategizing with local schools, including Northeastern, to develop
solutions. Northeastern, reacting to internal and external pressures, began plans to increase student
housing. Northeastern’s campus was more or less fixed between Huntington Avenue and the railway
tracks that border the Lower Roxbury neighborhood. With little developable land remaining inside its
traditional borders, four underutilized parcels adjacent to the campus in Lower Roxbury appeared
The City owned the vacant parcels and had been leasing them to Northeastern to use as an overflow
parking lot. Northeastern made the decision to acquire the land to build student housing and
affordable rental housing for low-income households in the community, anticipating that because of
its long-time use as a parking lot and the City’s failure to divest the property during previous efforts,
there would be few if any objections to the plan. What hadn’t surfaced yet was that many community
residents who had witnessed urban renewal wanted input into any decisions related to the future of
Northeastern was aware of Boston’s vocal and politically active populace, and therefore decided to
engage third party developers with links to the community and experience working in the public
sector to manage the proposed off-campus development. Housing Investments, Inc., Trinity
Financial and Madison Park Development Corporation brought complementary talents to the team
and with Northeastern formed Madison Davenport Partners. Madison Park Development
Corporation is a community development corporation with a history of successful residential and
economic development projects in Roxbury. Trinity Financial and Housing Investments, Inc. are
Boston-based firms specializing in the development of affordable housing. Trinity took the
development lead, while Housing Investments brokered the deal.
With President Freeland’s full support, the university’s top administrators also backed the project.
Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) representative Tom O’Malley and Mayor Menino were
both enthusiastic and helped to move the project forward. Negotiations between Madison
Davenport Partners and the City of Boston were already well under way and the plans were
essentially ready to implement when the BRA issued a request for proposals for development of
parcels 14, 14A, 15, and 16A. In the minds of the partners it was a win/win situation. However, few
community groups were aware that the project was in the planning stages and the partners seriously
underestimated the community hostility towards the university.
A request for proposals (RFP) is required for the sale and subsequent development of all city-owned
land. However, because Madison Partners had already been in discussion with the BRA and the
Mayor about the project, there were some in the community who viewed it as a done deal. Many felt
that the BRA had deliberately established a limited time frame and had not adequately publicized the
RFP because they planned on granting approval to Northeastern and the RFP was simply a formality.
“The hook is in,” stated Representative Byron Rushing. The perception that project approval had
been negotiated behind close doors was a serious setback to the development team and the university
in particular. (MORE FROM RUSHING AND WILKERSON ABOUT OBJECTIONS TO RFP)
One other proposal was submitted in response to the RFP by the developers of an adjacent mixed
income apartment complex, Douglas Park Plaza, for a Walgreen’s Pharmacy. Despite widespread
support for increased housing opportunities in the area, many in the community backed the
Walgreen’s proposal as a way to stop Northeastern. Later on in the process some opponents would
state publicly that they would prefer the land to continue to remain vacant. Community Opposition and Political Process
When the combined student and community housing project was first made public, the partnership
encountered a surprising amount of opposition. Northeastern and its development partners thought
that augmenting the local housing stock in a constrained market, particularly without the need for
federal funds, was a political safe bet. Because student housing is often contested on the grounds that
what is really needed is more affordable housing for a community, Davenport Commons’ innovative
program combining student and community housing in a joint development was thought to satisfy
needs for both the institution and the surrounding neighborhoods. However, this proved not to be
the case. What the university considered to be the “back door” of the campus was a community
made up predominately of African Americans and other minorities that had long felt ignored by the
University and marginalized by the City. In addition to feeling they had been left out of the planning
process, residents felt that Northeastern was encroaching on the neighborhood and reducing
opportunities for local residents.
“The struggle for affordable homeownership in lower Roxbury and the struggle to get Northeastern
University to stop landbanking its land is an economic human rights issue and that's exactly why
SNAP is endorsing the Economic Human Rights Campaign and the Freedom Bus" stated Pat
Cusick, Director of South End Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP). Cusick went on to file a suit with HUD's civil rights department over the lack of community process. Opposition to Davenport Commons was focused on two issues: first, the community’s right to be heard. The initial planning and predevelopment process angered many residents because it was exclusive and not transparent. The community was largely disempowered from the process because the University provided a direct private subsidy and all that was needed was approval to purchase the land (MORE ABOUT THIS). Second, many feared the University’s encroachment into Roxbury, a fear justified by the experiences of residents in Allston–Brighton and Cambridge. Essentially, community members felt entitled to a voice and a role in shaping change in their neighborhood. They were concerned that this development heralded future impacts to their community, in the way that many long-entrenched Boston neighborhoods were already changing in terms of price and demographics in an era of gentrification and urban migration. They needed clear information and they needed reassurance that the university was indeed a community partner. The Office of Government Relations and Community Affairs at Northeastern worked hard to create new ways of communicating with the public and continues its efforts still. Throughout the process, the university did receive support from some members of the community, however political support was hot and cold in response to various constituent groups. Community concerns ranged from issues directly related to the design and program of the project, to the University’s plans to expand into the neighborhood and the threat of gentrification, to a paucity of scholarship money for local students. Those who opposed the project wanted different things: some wanted more process; some wanted to develop it themselves; some wanted more, or less, but were unable to articulate what that would mean for them. One dispute that was relatively easily resolved was over the proposed rental housing. There was some debate in the community over building more affordable rental housing in Lower Roxbury since it was already home to a large stock of the City’s affordable housing (WHAT %?). Some residents championed homeownership opportunities as a way to help stabilize the area. According to some of the partners, the switch from rental housing to homeownership was essentially an abutter issue articulated by local condominium associations. (Typically, homeowners want more ownership and renters want more rental housing). Once the rationale for homeownership had been articulated, however, it appealed to the wider community since ownership is so low (WHAT %?) in Roxbury. State representative Byron Rushing stated, “We believe home ownership should be available to residents in a neighborhood that has the one of the lowest home ownership rates in the entire city”
(Walsh 1998). Patrick Lee, President of Trinity Financial, also points out that a greater mix of
housing tenure allows residents who improve their economic situation a place to move up. The
economics of the combined student and community project allowed for moderate-income housing
which was advantageous. The structure of current housing finance programs and the economics of
housing markets make this a particularly difficult group to serve.
The switch to homeownership helped, but many issues remained contentious and there was now new
concern that homeownership precluded occupancy by the area’s lowest income residents. Eventually,
it became obvious that some opponents sought to paralyze the process indefinitely. Were it not for
Mayor Menino’s intervention, the project may have languished. The Mayor issued a challenge to the
parties involved to reach an agreement by a target deadline. His attention and support sent a strong
signal to the community and its political leaders and they refocused their efforts.
Following the Mayor’s edict, a group of African American civic leaders was established to reach a
workable solution. The group consisted of Patrick Lee, Senator Dianne Wilkerson, Representative
Byron Rushing, Jeanne Pinado, Madison Park’s Executive Director, Pat Cusick of SNAP, Syvalia
"Val" Hyman, President and CEO of United South End/Lower Roxbury Development Corporation,
and Vincent Haynes, then president of Madison Park Development Corporation’s Board of
Directors. The group met every couple of weeks for several months and attempted to craft a
proposal that would give something to everyone. Haynes was an influential member of this group. A
long-time resident of Roxbury, Haynes is highly respected within the community. Danette Jones,
Madison Park’s former Executive Director, had convinced Haynes that the Davenport Commons
project was important and propitious, and he committed himself to helping others understand its
potential benefits. A critical juncture was achieved when he persuaded Mel King, an influential
Roxbury activist and outspoken project opponent, to attend a meeting and participate in seeking a
resolution. A Boston Globe
article quoted Tom N. O’Brien, former director of the Boston
Redevelopment Authority, praising Haynes, “There was a split in the community; he was able to be a
bigger individual than just a partisan of one side. He pulled all the leaders together and caused them
all to say, ‘How do we find a way?’ It was his stature, his long-term activism, that caused people to
come together” (Radin 1999: B1). Towards Resolution
The group proposed dividing the parcels exactly in half, allocating equal areas for 125 units of
student housing (accommodating about 600 students, a significant reduction from the 879 that was
first proposed) and 75 units of community housing. The 50/50 split was generally accepted and
became highly symbolic for the community. While the equal division of land was comforting to many, there were some who were still highly skeptical of the University’s motives and felt certain that it would, in fact, be students occupying the ‘so called’ community housing. It soon became clear that the parcels could only accommodate 60 units of community townhouses, so the partners looked for more land to build additional units, as a reduction in the number of units would have certainly met resistance. Fortunately, Madison Park Development Corporation owned a small parcel nearby which could be integrated into the project. This parcel became the site for the additional fifteen units, known as Shawmut Estates. In the original design, student and community housing would have been intermingled in one unified development. As a result of community involvement, a new plan separated the student housing from the community housing, creating two distinct living environments. Affordability was increased [CLARIFY THIS STATEMENT] for the community housing and the planned rental units became homeownership units. The overall density of the student housing was reduced from the original design, but the building height was increased. In exchange for the community’s approval of its plans to develop Davenport Commons, the university made several concessions: it agreed to release a list of all the properties it owns to the community; to produce a community approved area master plan before buying any more property to the south or east of Columbus Avenue; and not to develop a property it owns adjacent to Carter Playground (Walsh 1998). Construction began in October 1999 and in the spring of 2001, the residential units were ready for occupancy. An application process was established for the home ownership units, however, demand was so great that a lottery was implemented to determine who of the almost 700 applicants would be chosen. Approximately half of the owners are from the immediate Roxbury area, with others coming from greater Boston. Eligible applicants had to meet strict eligibility requirements. The fifteen units at Shawmut Estates were reserved for households at or below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI).3 Thirty seven of the Davenport homeownership units were also set aside for families at or below 80 percent of the area median income, eleven units were reserved for those earning 81 to 120 percent of AMI and the remaining twelve were for those earning 121 to 175 percent of AMI. Owners must reside in their units and they are only permitted to rent them out once every several years (HOW MANY?) and even then only for six months at a time.
3 Area Median Income for the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area was $70,000 in 2001. At the time the units were sold it was approximately $66,000.
Resale conditions, an increasingly common provision in tight housing markets, were also instituted.
Homes can only be sold to buyers in the same AMI bracket that the seller qualified under. In
addition, the value of the home cannot increase annually by more than five percent. While seemingly
contradictory to the idea of the American dream - the ability to cash out the unlimited appreciation in
the value of one’s home - the homes were sold below market rate in the first instance. According to a
recent article, the median price for a condominium in Roxbury is $287,000 (Pikounis 2001). Prices
for the Davenport homes ranged from $95,000 to $225,000 and Shawmut Estate homes were priced
between $85,000 and $105,000. Madison Park Development Corporation provided technical
assistance and helped the homeowners set up a condominium association. It also provided first time
Students moved into the Northeastern University apartments in the fall of 2001. The response from
the community and from students has been uniformly positive. Outreach and cross-programming
between students and homebuyers has resulted in open communication and generated heightened
respect among students for the surrounding community. Financing
Davenport Commons was financed through a complex assemblage of debt and equity from a variety
of public and private sources. Northeastern University provided a significant equity contribution as
seed for the project. In addition to this, both taxable and non-taxable debt from the Massachusetts
Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), a variety of federal and local government grants, gap financing
and proceeds from the sale of homeownership units combined to make up the over $50 million in
total uses for the project.
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