Campus construction: Rhetoric versus reality

Heavy pieces of machinery displace soil and move other materials on site.

So, the campus construction. There’s a lot to unpack here. Supposedly, we’re going to be able to use our new quad come the spring semester, but honestly that seems like quite the pipe dream. Why? Well, I recently attended the Campus Update Meeting via Zoom, and someone asked why Healey Library isn’t yet accessible from its base—not by me though. The Q&A was apparently not extended to those over Zoom…suspicious. Anyway, all we got for an answer was some handwaving about Otis Elevator Company workers being there all the time—doing what, besides racking up a bill, I could not say—and that supply chain issues were slowing things down. So how we will see an entire new quad in spring 2023?

While the Chancellor prattled on, answering every question and grievance with irrelevant, self-aggrandizing stories about his past and putting forth bland comparisons to other cities—all in an attempt to say “we’re not as bad as we could be”—I was thinking about how often the UMass Boston administration says one thing, and does another. As if by divine providence, I even heard them happily promoting the Farmer’s Fridge vending machines, which I mentioned in my last article about the administration’s hypocrisy. Funny, isn’t it?

So, when it comes to the campus construction, I’d like to evaluate the administration’s narrative that the “Substructure, Science Center, Pool Building and Plaza Demolition and Quadrangle Development”—SDQD for short—is an attempt to create a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, accessible, safe campus.

First, though, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do believe that big construction projects are, and will continue to be, necessary to build a more sustainable future. There is no avoiding it, and I do not, at all, wish to discourage the administration from taking on such projects; nor do I wish to convince anyone to forsake the good for the perfect. There is never a “perfect” solution. Yet there must still be scrutiny. There are smart, efficient and environmentally conscious ways to undertake environmental projects, and the project’s end goals must be scrutinized with a high-powered lens if we are to build the right sort of sustainable future.

So: Let’s scrutinize.

As an environmental science minor, I come to this practice from the perspective of environmental impacts—though that doesn’t mean I won’t cover some other issues as well. Over the past year or more, we have encountered fumes from boiling asphalt, dust from the huge dirt lot, and emissions from construction tools and vehicles and who knows what else. Air quality has certainly suffered, and our lungs with it. But that may not even be the worst of it.

Disturbingly, while reading through the original 25-Year Master Plan document from 2009, I discovered that, where the Pool House and Substructure once stood—they were bulldozed during the start of the SDQD project—“several gas tanks” belonging to the Boston Consolidated Gas Company existed for decades. It's a bit hard to tell if there were gas tanks where the current quad construction is, but there definitely were some where West Parking Garage was built, and even around the general area. There are sure to have been spills and leaks. This makes me wonder: Did anybody ever test the soil for contaminants before it was dug up? Let’s also remember that the soil all around Boston in general is highly contaminated with lead, largely due to leaded gasoline. Is it a good thing that we’re on a relatively windy peninsula, or does it make the dust worse?

I’d also like to point out that the longer this landscaping drags on, the more carbon is being released by the land itself. Soil is a carbon sink—this mainly happens through plant photosynthesis, where plants fix some amount of carbon dioxide into the soil beneath them, or when plants die and are partially preserved under the soil. Ripping up the green layer and exposing deeper layers of soil accelerates, not only the release of CO2 from the soil, but also the decomposition of partially decomposed organic material, adding more carbon to the atmosphere. 

It was a good idea to let the large mounds of dirt accumulate a grass layer, but the main quad area has been kept as dirt—likely through the use of herbicides of some sort. This may also be a problem, depending on the chemical makeup of the herbicides. We are, after all, a coastal campus, and toxic runoff is a big concern—not to mention what we are breathing in.

The main goal of the SDQD project is to open up the campus and provide a lot of new greenspace. This is a great goal; the trees alone will help local air quality and reduce the heat-island effect, forebays will help water drainage and treatment, the seeded meadow will help facilitate the local ecosystem, and the greenery in general will help improve quality of life in many ways. However, there are some caveats.

Mainly, why in the world are we sticking a parking lot right in the middle of our new green quad, just so we can open up Bayside to building development? The amount of air pollution that will bring seems to negate the meager affect the trees will have, and runoff from the parking lot is going to enter the lawn and probably overtax the forebays. 

I recently attended a demonstration by the collective UMass Boston unions on lowering parking prices, and learned from the President of the Professional Staff Union, Anneta Argyres, that we lost a lot of campus accessible parking with the original “substructure”—more on that next week. However, we do still have some parking under the campus buildings, which certainly can be increasingly reserved for handicap parking. It seems to me that keeping our buildings close by is more important for general accessibility, than the parking lot itself is.

The quad isn’t the only aspect of the 25-year-plan, though. Other projects, such as the stabilization of the shoreline and the Harbor Walk, completed in 2015; the renovations to existing buildings; and the on-campus residence halls are also all part of the master plan. 

The shoreline stabilization was an unmitigated positive, but the fact that the administration long ignored the poor airflow in Wheatley, even during the COVID-19 crisis, makes me question how committed they are to improving the existing buildings. Furthermore, the decision to remove the catwalk between Wheatley and McCormack without replacing it is curious. The ability to walk from building-to-building without opening doors to the outside is a huge boon for energy efficiency. Students today, especially in McCormack, even have an understandable habit of leaving outside doors open for the crowds. How much heating energy are we wasting this way?

As for the residence halls, I have one big, remaining question. Where’s the sustainability? I haven’t seen any solar panels, or even a small wind turbine like on the Museum of Science roof. I haven’t seen any interesting and conversation-initiating vertical gardens, major water runoff structures or other green infrastructure. I haven’t even been able to find any mention of energy efficient design. The plan is to build another building just across the street where one of the small parking lots used to be, and I hope that they implement real, significant energy efficient and green infrastructure aspects to them—and improve the existing residence halls with these things as well.

In fact, I don’t really see a lot of green design in any of our modern buildings. Heck, the design of the sliding doors at Campus Center was clearly a huge energy-efficiency mistake, as many of them are now habitually blocked off to open air circulation. And, as I mentioned before, the catwalk between Wheatley and McCormack is never to return. Why? The administration loves to talk about how progressive it is on the climate and environment front, yet it seems that they haven’t actually done much on-campus to back up their rhetoric.

As I said: I do not want to naysay or handwave any environmental projects—especially ones that will improve the quality of life for those who interact with the area. They are necessary and important. But nothing is perfect, and our administration certainly overlooks or straight up ignores major issues on a number of fronts. The 25-year Master Plan, and especially the SDQD project, are certainly no exception, and we should absolutely scrutinize the process and the goals in an effort to improve the results. In this case, I believe students and staff need to speak up about speeding up the progress, reconsidering the parking lot placement, and implementing green design into our buildings.

The administration needs to put its actions first, and its words second. Right now, they do a lot of talking about the future—“For the Times” is, after all, marketed as a future-gazing paradigm—and yet they are no more progressive in their actions than any other college in the area. The Chancellor needs to stop holding us back by comparing us to other colleges and saying, “good enough,” and start thinking about how far we can pull ahead on our own.

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