College growth continues to head south. Literally.
With the recent purchase of two additional houses south of College Street, Bowdoin is continuing to slowly acquire residential property in the neighborhood that separates the College's main campus from its Farley Field House athletic complex.
Bowdoin has purchased 17 properties between Farley and College Street in the past 10 years, an Orient analysis has found.
Since the campus is bordered on three sides by residential neighborhoods, the purchase of nearby houses by the College has been a key long-term expansion strategy for decades. A campus planning study completed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) and made public in 2004 affirmed Bowdoin's approach.
"The major emphasis or 'take away' from the SOM study was that the campus would likely grow toward the South, in the direction of the Farley Field House," Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley told the Orient.
According to Longley, the College's most recent acquisitions, 30 Longfellow Ave. and 66 Harpswell Rd., were finalized last Friday. Longley declined to release the sale prices until trustees have been notified.
For the time being, the two houses will join the 23 other homes throughout Brunswick that Bowdoin uses to house faculty and staff. The new purchases are located in a residential zone, which limits their use to family dwellings.
With the purchase of 30 Longfellow Ave., Bowdoin has nearly completed the acquisition of a corridor down both sides of Coffin Street, which leads south from the main campus to Farley. Currently, the College owns all but two of the 13 lots on Coffin Street.
One of the two remaining lots is owned by Robert Coffin, whose family provided the namesake for the street. According to his wife Betty, her husband was born in the house—which has been owned by the Coffin family for three generations—and intends to remain there.
Betty Coffin said the College once spoke to the couple about purchasing the property many years ago, but never made an explicit offer.
"I imagine someday they'll grab this place. But they haven't yet mentioned money, because I don't know that they want it that bad," she said.
"Let me give them a clue," she said jokingly. "I have five children. They're going to have to battle the kids for it."
One of the sketches in the SOM report suggested replacing the Coffin Street corridor with a wide column of green space and walkways leading from the center of campus to Farley. The report also recommended that the College build a new quadrangle in the vicinity of Coffin Street.
According to Longley, most of Bowdoin's purchases result from homeowners contacting Bowdoin before they put their houses on the market. If Bowdoin agrees to buy, it is an attractive option for the homeowner, who can avoid employing a realtor. But, Longley said, the College gets many more offers than it can accept.
"Most of the time we say 'no,'" she said.
Occasionally, Bowdoin takes a more active approach to acquisition.
"We have sometimes taken the initiative to talk to homeowners when their property is strategic to the College," Longley said.
The trustees have approved a policy that guides the College's purchasing decisions and outlines various "priority zones" of land strategic to Bowdoin. The College does not make this information public.
Bowdoin's house purchases could decrease the town's yearly tax revenues. According to Longley, when the College buys a house for residential use, it is exempt from paying taxes on the building—except in certain grandfathered agreements—although it still must pay taxes on the land.
She noted, however, that Bowdoin is on the list of the town's top 10 taxpayers and also makes voluntary payments for various town services.
Many of the properties Bowdoin has purchased in recent years are located in residential zones that prohibit most college uses.
The primary residential area between the athletic and academic campuses runs along Longfellow Avenue. The street, which runs east from Maine Street to Harpswell Road and bisects Coffin Street, consists mostly of single-family houses, some of which are owned by Bowdoin faculty and staff.
The Longfellow Avenue zone is among the most restrictive zones in the town. Brunswick zoning ordinance allows only single- or two-family dwellings. No college use—other than faculty and staff housing—is permitted.
Theo Holtwijk, director of Brunswick's Department of Planning & Development, said Longfellow Avenue has historically been a point of contention. According to Holtwijk, when the town re-evaluated zoning in the Longfellow area in the early 1990s, the resolution "did not allow Bowdoin to use as much of its property as it would have liked."
If in the future Bowdoin chooses to develop some of the property it has purchased in residential zones, it will have to first apply for a zoning change with the town.
Holtwijk declined to speculate on the prospects for a future zoning change in the area of Coffin and Longfellow streets.
"I think that some people would say, 'If you buy property it's not an automatic given that you would also get rezoning handed to you on a silver platter.' At the same token, I think if and when the College has a need to grow, I think that all interested parties...should come together to discuss how the College can best grow," Holtwijk said.
For the College's part, Longley said that Bowdoin would not be pushing any zone changes soon.
"There are no current plans for any zoning changes in the foreseeable future," she said.
Longley also said that Bowdoin does not have any current plans to buy more property along Longfellow Avenue.
Four privately-owned houses south of College Street are currently zoned for college use. This would allow the College more leeway in the use of these properties if it were to acquire them.
Patricia Riley, a resident of one of the College-zoned houses, said she has no plans to move. Although her property near Chamberlain Hall is the only one on her block not owned by Bowdoin, she said that the College had never offered to buy her house.
Riley said she was not aware if the College had any plans for her property and cited the general lack of information as one of the primary reasons for friction between local residents and Bowdoin.
"I think what gets people concerned is the lack of transparency," she said. "All of a sudden you learn something about a house that has been bought. I think it'd be good if people had a clearer sense of where Bowdoin was headed. It would make everybody a lot more comfortable."
Overall, Riley described her experience living near both the College and downtown Brunswick as a positive one.
"We believe in a good neighbor policy. Bowdoin's been good neighbors to us and we hope we've been good neighbors to Bowdoin," she said.
College Neighbors Association
Some residents of the Longfellow Avenue area have been active in the recently formed College Neighbors Association (CNA), whose self-described mission "is to preserve, protect, and improve the character and livability of our neighborhoods."
Members of the CNA are concerned by the potential of the College's expansion efforts to transform their neighborhoods.
Connie Lundquist, a Longfellow Avenue resident and an active member of CNA, said she worries about college growth but does not expect major transformative change until many years in the future.
"I don't think, so far, the purchase of properties by Bowdoin is going to affect this neighborhood probably in my lifetime," she said.
The College recently demolished two houses on the corner of South and Coffin streets, but not before Lundquist claims the houses fell into disrepair.
"If the College wants to own the houses I don't have any problem with that," she said. "My concern is what happened on South Street. They bought some houses on South Street and let them go derelict. I don't want to see that happen because it will affect the market value of the rest of the houses in this neighborhood. They've promised not to."
According to Longley, the College currently owns eight vacant properties, including two former fraternities. Bowdoin purchased the last of the banned fraternities in 2004.
Also in 2004, Bowdoin purchased and subsequently demolished the building at 40 Harpswell St., a boarding house typically rented to members of the men's rugby team. It recently tore down a house at 26 College St. as well.
Lundquist expressed hope that the College does not decide to expand down Longfellow Avenue beyond its properties along Coffin Street.
"I think there's a natural tension at the edges, always. The College wants to grow. The neighbors want to keep it what it's been, she said. "Our main concern is that this neighborhood remain a livable, relatively quiet—except maybe on Saturday nights—neighborhood."
Longley said the College makes an effort to inform local residents about upcoming plans and work with them to address their concerns.
"We try to be as considerate of neighbors as we can," Longley said. "It's a healthy give and take."
Riley urged better communication and cooperation by both sides.
"I think its unfortunate when it becomes a sort of a holy-war—the town and gown kinds of issues—and I think they're largely preventable if there's good cooperative, collaborative planning about where the future of the College is and where these neighborhoods are going to grow. People need to make that commitment to do it openly and transparently," Riley said.
She was also sympathetic to Bowdoin's desire to grow.
"I think it's a balancing act about how to meet Bowdoin's expansion goals and still keep neighborhoods. I think that's a conversation that neighborhoods and Bowdoin can have because everybody wants Bowdoin to succeed, I think, because we certainly do," she said.
A proposal is currently under consideration by the Brunswick School Board to close Longfellow School, an elementary school that is bounded by private Longfellow Avenue homes to the west and Bowdoin property to the east. The CNA has mobilized to lobby against the closure.
The potential closing of Longfellow School has prompted some residents to question whether Bowdoin would be interested in purchasing the 2.5-acre property if it was for sale.
In February, Bowdoin Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration and Chief Development Officer Bill Torrey told the Orient that the College had no plans to purchase Longfellow Elementary.
"It wouldn't be appropriate to say that we'd be interested if these properties came on the market because they're not on the market. We believe very strongly that the community needs to do the right thing with their school system and that's it," he said.
"I don't know if they're interested in the Longfellow school," Lundquist said. "I certainly hope not. I'm hoping the Longfellow School remains a grammar school. I think most people in the neighborhood are. The college neighbors are very much in favor of neighborhood grammar schools."
Air base closing
A final decision on the fate of Longfellow School could take up to a year.
The decision last year to close Brunswick Naval Air Station by 2011 presents the College with growth possibilities to the east.
The potential acquisition of some of the base was discussed in the draft of Bowdoin's reaccreditation self-study study, released last week.
"Bowdoin is represented on the Local Reuse Authority for the naval air base and may be interested in acquiring portions of the base property for future College use," the report reads.