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UMass Wants To Turn Dorchester's Former Bayside Expo Center Site Into 'Modern-Day Harvard Square'

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The University of Massachusetts Building Authority has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to seek out ideas for the "highest and best use" of the former Bayside Expo Center site in Dorchester with an eye toward transforming the 20-acre site into a "modern-day Harvard Square." The document, released Tuesday, asks developers to submit their ideas for a "mixed-use development opportunity" on the waterfront site through a potential public-private re-development.

The Bayside site has been controlled by UMass since 2010 after its previous owners lost the former exhibition hall to foreclosure, interrupting a $1 billion plan to create a new mixed-use neighborhood on the prime Dorchester Bay location.

Since then, the Bayside site has twice been embroiled in controversy over its future use. First, boosters of the now-defunct Boston 2024 Olympics targeted the site as the preferred home for an Athlete's Village. Once that collapsed, the Bayside site was eyed by Robert Kraft as a potential site for a soccer stadium and concert venue — a discussion that was shrouded in secrecy — leading to calls for the university to throw open its process to a larger development community. Kraft and UMass announced in April that the stadium discussion had ended.

A spokesperson for the university said Tuesday that the RFI is a "preliminary step and is non-binding." The document asks developers to take into account earlier planning efforts for the peninsula, including UMass Boston's Bayside Charretting Process, the Columbia Point Master Plan and the UMass Boston Master Plan.

The RFI document highlights the Bayside site's proximity to downtown Boston and the "fast-developing South Boston market." It notes its location near the JFK/UMass Red Line station, waterfront access to the Harbor Walk and Carson Beach.

"Undeveloped sites of the size of the Bayside Property in the Boston metro area are rare and may allow a developer significant pricing power," the RFI's overview reads. "Successful partnership may include additional property that the University may acquire in the future."

The document also notes that the UMass Building Authority is blessed with exemptions from city and state oversight and — in some cases — taxes.

In a section that outlines the "objectives" of the RFI, it reads, "UMass wishes to engage a Developer to conceptualize a vision to transform the Bayside Property into a modern-day Harvard Square, New Balance/Boston Landing, Kenmore Square, MIT Volpe Center etc., projects; a mixed-use destination where a diverse community lives, learns and thrives, integrated with and complementary to the UMass Boston campus that optimizes its value and creates an oceanfront Boston neighborhood with academic, research, retail, residential, dining, entertainment and cultural uses, serving as a new gateway to UMass Boston and distinguish the University in the higher education marketplace as a unique, attractive urban university, all accomplished by leveraging public private partnerships that will facilitate a more rapid development of the Bayside."

The university acquired the Bayside property in 2010 for $18.7 million. Interested developers have until Oct. 6 to file their responses to the UMBA.

What happens after the RFI bids are received is not yet clear.

"The RFI is non-binding, but if the information received informs a vision for the property and the timing makes sense, the next step in the sequence would be to develop an [Request for Proposals]," said Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesperson for the UMass president's office.

State Rep. Nick Collins told the Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday evening that the RFI was a chance for a "new beginning at Bayside."

"On the whole, it's a great step forward for UMass, using the work that's been done by the community and at the city level and state level," he said.

The university, sitting at the "gateway of Dorchester" sits on a huge financial opportunity with the Bayside parcel, Collins said. He, state Rep. Dan Hunt and state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry last year put forward legislation that would require UMass to go through a transparent public process in developing its land.

UMass Building Authority's exemption from certain regulatory scrutiny is a boon if leveraged properly, Collins said.

He expects the building authority to become engaged again with the community once developers have "driven a little competition with regard for what can be done, and complement all the work that has been done."

Eileen Boyle, an officer with the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, was skeptical about bringing developers into planning discussions before reengaging with neighbors.

"UMass needs to bring the community back to the table," she said. "Developers have different objectives than local residents."

Dorchester Reporter's Jennifer Smith contributed to this story

This story comes via a partnership with the Dorchester Reporter, and was first published by the Reporter's newsroom.

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