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UMass pursues public-private partnership on student housing

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Courtesy photo



Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2018

AMHERST — New student housing with up to 1,000 beds in a development to be constructed on Massachusetts Avenue may take shape under the first public-private partnership at the University of Massachusetts campus.

The Committee on Administration and Finance of the UMass board of trustees Wednesday voted to move forward with a process that will explore an arrangement between a private developer and the university to bring the project to fruition at some point in the coming years.

The public-private partnership, also known as a P3, will allow a request for proposal to be issued by the UMass Building Authority by January, said Tony Maroulis, executive director of external relations and university events.

“The basic principle of the P3 is a developer assumes financial risk for the project and manages the project over the course of an agreement,” Maroulis said.

Because the university is constrained by an 8 percent debt ceiling, Maroulis said having a private partner is an avenue to add housing consistent with the university’s master plan. The trustees are also interested in redevelopment of the North Village graduate housing complex.

No proposals yet

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman informed the Select Board of the possibility of the new developments at Wednesday’s meeting, but cautioned that there are no details about the scope of the projects.

“There are no proposals for actual housing, heights, distance, anything like that,” Bockelman said.

What is known is that on Massachusetts Avenue the project would be in the parking lots where the Robsham Memorial Center for Visitors is located, adjacent to Lincoln Apartments. At North Village new housing for graduate students and their families would be phased in and replace apartments built in 1971.

“The housing up there needs serious intervention,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman said he has advised UMass officials that when it issues the request for proposal that a developer be asked to take into account the proximity of Massachusetts Avenue to Fearing Street and Lincoln Avenue, where many owner-occupied homes are located, as well as the potential impact on downtown businesses if commercial space is included in the project.

The idea for these partnerships is included in the UMass-Town of Amherst Housing and Economic Development report, released in November 2014 by U3 Advisors.

Funded with $60,000, paid for equally by the town and UMass, the report suggests mixed-use developments that more closely tie downtown Amherst to the UMass campus, while increasing the supply of off-campus student housing and expanding the town’s tax base.

Bockelman said it is uncertain if these projects will be taxable or not because the land on which they would be constructed is state owned.

Kitchen sink

The decision to proceed with private developments on UMass land follows the university putting out a request for information in June 2017 about the types of projects the UMass Building Authority wanted to see on campus, including a 1,200-bed, 400,000-square-foot residence hall, a 150-to-200-room hotel at 50,000 to 65,000 square feet, a 40,000-square-foot conference center, a 50,000-square-foot indoor athletic facility, an entertainment facility at 10,000 square feet and a health services facility of approximately 80,000 square feet.

Maroulis said the 11 responses indicated that companies were interested mainly in building a residence hall on campus.

“We didn’t know what to expect (because) this was first time an RFI was issued by the campus,” Maroulis said.

After getting the responses, UMass did a housing demand analysis that showed a need for 1,000 beds that would supplement the 13,500 already on campus for the 22,000 undergraduate students.

This analysis also showed that students are interested in more modern, studio and one- and two-bedroom spaces, Maroulis said, and 70 percent of students surveyed preferred Massachusetts Avenue for the building, rather than University Drive across the from the high-rise dormitories in the Southwest Area and the old fraternity row and neighboring sites on North Pleasant Street.

Even though the Massachusetts Avenue site is not directly linked to downtown Amherst, Maroulis said it would benefit Amherst by being within walking distance of shops and restaurants, and would serve to continue giving students an option other than rentals in Amherst neighborhoods.

Maroulis said he wouldn’t speculate about what this project would look like and whether it would have a retail or commercial component, or the type of development agreement that might be reached with a developer.

The university might also use a new residence hall as swing space that would allow it to take other dormitories off line and refurbish them.

The UMass system has seen public-private partnerships play out on other campuses. At UMass-Boston, Capstone Development Partners LLC built a $120 million, 260,000-square-foot residence hall on land leased from the state, and another project is underway on the UMass-Dartmouth campus.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.