Medford postpones decision on Tufts’ off-campus student housing project

Medford’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) moved on Monday night to postpone a decision on Tufts’ bid to convert university-owned properties between Capen Street and Boston Avenue into student housing. Further discussion will be held at the Jan. 11, 2018 ZBA meeting, according to Secretary of the Board Denis MacDougall.

The project was not immediately approved because the wood-framed houses in question do not meet the dimensional standards for dormitories, MacDougall explained. Due to this distinction, the university is required to apply for a variance, or a deviation from the city’s zoning code, to commence construction.

“The lot area for a dorm is required to be 10,000 sq. ft. and none of these properties individually are that area,” MacDougall told the Daily in an email. “So the zoning code requires the university to ask for a variance from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals from the zoning code to get a building permit.”

MacDougall also said that local bylaws require Tufts to consult the city. The three-person ZBA must vote unanimously in favor to approve any pending project. Their decision was postponed, according to MacDougall, to wait for the university to provide more information.

“The board would like some further details from the university regarding any rules and regulations that will be put in place for these proposed dormitories both during the construction and once they are occupied,” MacDougall said.

Pending the city’s approval, the first seven apartments will be ready next fall, Director of Community Relations Rocco DiRico said. The rest of the buildings are slated to be ready by the end of 2019. No construction on the houses can begin until the ZBA approves the request, according to DiRico.

Dirico noted that the project stemmed from requests by neighbors for the university to create more housing for its students.

“This is a cost-effective, relatively quick way for us to do that,” DiRico told the Daily in an email.

At a Nov. 29 meeting between Somerville aldermen, Tufts administrators and student group Tufts Housing League, however, both students and Alderman Katjana Ballantyne argued that a larger dorm would be a more robust way to add on-campus housing, as opposed to wood-framed buildings.

Benya Kraus, President of the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, said that the Capen Village project attempts to address equity issues on campus. According to Kraus, rates for off-campus apartments have been steadily increasing.

“A lot of students may want that off-campus vibe and sense of independence, but the rental rates … may cater to a certain socioeconomic status,” Kraus said.

Some of the houses that will be converted into apartments previously housed faculty, Director of Real Estate Robert Chihade explained. According to DiRico, two of the houses were used as offices and one house was used as a dormitory for Tufts graduate students.

“Five faculty members either have or will need to relocate in order to accommodate these new student residences,” Chihade told the Daily in an email.

According to Chihade, all of the faculty members affected are being compensated by the university, which is also paying for any moving expenses. The faculty members also have the option of moving into any available apartment owned by Walnut Hill, which is the Tufts-owned property management company, Chihade said.

“These faculty members can remain in their new unit as long as they remain a Tufts professor,” Chihade said. “This is indefinite guaranteed housing — an unusual benefit for higher ed faculty in the Boston area.”

Every bedroom in the apartments would house one student, and each unit has a kitchen, living room and bathroom, DiRico said.

Many aspects of the project are yet to be decided, according to Kraus. For example, if the plan to convert the houses into apartments is approved, the university must decide how the apartments will play into the housing lottery process. Kraus mentioned that if the houses are themed, that could impact their placement in the lottery system.

“We’re hoping to get a lot of feedback from students about what they would like the lottery system [for the apartments] to be,” Kraus said.

Ultimately, Chihade and DiRico said the project is seen as a way to bring more juniors and seniors into the on-campus housing system.

“These apartments are adjacent to and/or within 1 block of campus,” DiRico said. “It will be very appealing to students who want to live off campus.”

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