Living in the Shadow of Development: the Joyce Cummings Center’s Impact on the Medford Community

The Tufts Observer makes the following clarifications:

The Observer did not claim that the Joyce Cummings Center began construction without permits, rather that the permits approved by the building commissioner were not appropriate for the new plans being used for. The neighbors’ petition was based on the inappropriate approval of the old permits for the new plans by the building commissioner.

The Observer quoted Mike Korcynski as saying the Joyce Cumming Center would be 135 feet tall. The effective height of the building will be 120 feet tall. This measurement is taken by measuring from the foundational elevation of 29’5” at the base of the hill, to the top of the mechanical equipment on the roof of the building at 149’8”. Tufts disputes this, providing a 95 feet measurement. Tufts measures the front facade on the hill, from the roofline at 133’8” to the floor of the entrance level which sits at 46’. For reference: angle 1, angle 2.


The Observer quoted Laurel Ruma as saying that the January 2019 meeting was not public. The meeting was public as all ZBA meetings must be by law, however it was not an official hearing and therefore abutters were not required to be notified, and so abutters were not notified.

Tufts was not required to move the staging grounds from Stearns Field by the ZBA. Tufts changed their plans through the advice of the neighbors and Mayor Burke.

“It’s not hyperbolic to say that Tufts is stealing our sunshine,” said Laurel Ruma, who lives with Mike Korcynski directly behind the site of the Cummings Center and is leading the neighborhood movement to halt construction of Tufts’s newest building.

For students returning from winter break, there was a new presence on campus: the magnificent steel skeleton of the Joyce Cummings Center. While the construction promises students and faculty an exciting new space and a much-needed investment in facilities, it will permanently change life for the surrounding Medford neighborhood. “A 135-foot high-rise will cast shadows on six out of 14 houses on Burget Avenue, including ours. That means the house will be in shadow from November to April,” said Ruma. Korcynski and Ruma have lived in Medford for almost 20 years, 13 of which have been in their century-old Burget Avenue home. The neighbors are frustrated with Tufts’s neglect of the impact that the Cummings Center’s plan and layout will have on the surrounding community.

Tufts Director of Community Relations Rocco DiRico emphasized Tufts’s commitment to working with the local community throughout the process of construction. DiRico said, “My office sends an email to our neighbors each month to update them on the project. I also regularly meet with a neighborhood working group to address any issues that arise between our larger neighborhood meetings and identify agenda items for the neighborhood meetings.” The Cummings Center, which at its inception in 2015 was both an MBTA station and an academic building, was no different. The community had been involved in the early stages of planning, and that collaboration resulted in a consensus that was supported by both the community and the local government.

However, in 2017, the MBTA determined that the plans were too expensive and pulled out of the collaboration, opting instead for a simple station on Boston Avenue. Tufts was left to redesign the project, and this time, the community was barely informed. Thus, when it became clear that the Cummings Center would not follow the agreed upon plan, Ruma and Korcynski mobilized the neighborhood to ensure their voices would be heard.

The crux of the neighbors’ case against Tufts lies in zoning rules. Dr. Justin Hollander, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, explained that zoning rules help communities control the way in which land is developed. “The question is really about how things are going to be rebuilt and reused, and so that result is something called the Master or Community Plan,” said Hollander. “It starts off with a map of all the different zones and different parts of the community. And then a table in written form that is associated with all those maps says, ‘in these different zones, these are the uses that are allowed or not allowed.’” But zoning gets complicated by what Dr. Hollander termed “gray areas.” Gray areas are spaces in which buildings can be used for multiple purposes.

Hollander elaborated, “What typically happens with any kind of big development, for example the Cummings building, is that whatever the zoning might say, [the building] doesn’t conform. That’s a typical thing. So, the university would need what’s called variances, which are like legal permission from the city government to be able to have different types of uses and activity.”

The 135-foot-tall Joyce Cummings Center breaks the zoning code in five ways: exceeding height codes, unpermitted uses of the space, improper side yard, parking placement, and proximity to adjacent homes. New buildings routinely have such violations, and they can be bypassed on a case-by-case basis by securing variances.

Obtaining a variance is an extensive political process. To do so, the property owner must appear before a city zoning board, made up of either elected or appointed citizens. The Medford Zoning Board is made up of three appointed members. These hearings are public, and therefore are the best way for community members to voice their concerns about the plans. If a member of the community can persuade the board not to grant a permit, the property owner must draft modified plans that comply with zoning or request a different variance or appeal.

Tufts has worked through this process multiple times with the Cummings Center plans. In 2015, Tufts acquired an air rights variance to build the walkway across Boston Avenue connecting the Cummings Center to the Academic Quad. When the MBTA decided to move the station out of the building, the construction plans changed and therefore the old variance expired. The next building proposal also received a variance as the plans were farther from the neighborhood, and the tallest part of the building was in front of Halligan Hall. But Tufts changed design firms, and by the time that the new firm had a plan, the former variance had expired.

“In January 2019, [Tufts] went back to the Medford [Zoning Board of Appeals] to get their final design approved, but they never got approval, and that meeting was never made public,” said Ruma. Despite a lack of variances and approval, the Cummings Center proceeded according to plan.  

Over the summer, Ruma and Korcynski organized a campaign to protest construction and the use of Stearns Estate Field, located directly behind Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, as an area for preparing construction features. Former Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke stepped in and helped to find a solution. Burke was able to sway the Zoning Board of Appeals to ensure that the Stearns Estate Field would not be used as a semi-permanent staging and dumping ground, but the Board would not halt the construction.

The expired 2017 variance required the building to be 95 feet away from the neighboring homes rather than the 35 feet away where it currently sits. It gave permission for a six-story building; according to Korcynski and Ruma’s Request for Zoning Enforcement, “the Tufts Cummings Center will be a 135-foot building (including parapets and mechanicals) that is six stories, a height that is much more typical of a 10-story development.”

With the foundation laid both in the ground and the community movement, Korcynski, Ruma, and a group of neighbors attended the November 7 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, wielding a petition for the revocation of the Foundation Permit. After hearing the community complaints, Tufts’s delegation, made up of a group of lawyers and DiRico, offered a simple defense: the Dover Amendment.

First written into Massachusetts state law in 1950, “The Dover Amendment speaks to the ability of local nonprofit organizations to be exempt from certain zoning and state laws,” said Hollander. Through the Dover Amendment, religious institutions and universities do not have to apply for certain variances. This is intended to protect these groups from discrimination. For instance, in 2016, Dover was cited when the community of Dudley tried to block the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester from building a cemetery. The Dover Amendment protects these groups from religious suppression.

“It gives universities and religious organizations better latitude in terms of seeking variances,” said Denis MacDougall, secretary of the Medford Zoning Board of Appeals. MacDougall clarified that Dover only applys “As long as it’s used for the university, so like dormitories, classrooms, and things like that.” 

The Cummings Center will be an academic building with classrooms, study spaces, and faculty offices and therefore qualifies for Dover Amendment protection. Ruma and Korcynski, however, feel that the Dover Amendment is being abused “Dover does not allow carte blanche for these organizations,” said Ruma. “Cities do have the ability and right to try to enforce as much as possible, and the City of Medford did absolutely nothing to protect the citizens of this neighborhood.” 

In 1994, the City of Medford sued Tufts based on the noncompliance of three proposed buildings to the zoning code. These plans were for an extension on Wessel Library (which would later become Tisch Library), the construction of Olin Hall, and an addition to the Cousens Gymnasium which would become Hamilton Pool—all three failed to meet adequate parking regulations. Tufts claimed the Dover Amendment applied in these cases. For the construction of Hamilton Pool, the judge ruled that the Dover did not extend to that use and deemed that Tufts must build an off-site parking facility, which can be found across College Avenue. For the other two buildings, the judge deemed that the spirit of the Dover Amendment was appropriate given that the paving of driveways and parking lots for those buildings would reduce the green space of the campus to an extent that it would negatively impact students’ lives.

Tufts has used the Dover Amendment on almost every building project since that ruling. This includes the extension of Dowling Garage, the power plant on Boston Avenue, Community Housing (CoHo), and the maintenance garage located on Boston Avenue across from Semolina. “[The Dover Amendment] is now a blunt tool for the university’s rapid expansion,” said Ruma.

Tufts is not the only Massachusetts university to take advantage of the Dover Amendment. “It’s used by pretty much all of the universities [in Massachusetts],” said MacDougall. In 1981, Cambridge voted to become exempt from the Dover Amendment in an attempt to protect residents after Harvard University became the majority landowner of property in the city.

Somerville and Medford are attempting to join Cambridge in Dover exemption with the proposal of the “Home Rule Petitions.” These petitions are state bills requiring institutions to provide their master plan to the municipality for approval.

However, the Home Rule Petition is met with impressive opposition from a group of lobbyists on Tufts’s payroll known as the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. The Tufts Daily reported that Richard Doherty, president of AICUM, argued “an exemption would threaten the academic and religious freedom of private colleges and put them at the mercy of local zoning politics.” While this logic is held up in the case of Olin Hall, where the Dover Amendment protected the Residential Quad from being turned into a parking lot, it neglects the right of local residents to have a say in how their community is developed. 

While the larger movement to hold Tufts accountable progresses with the fight to enact the Home Rule Petition, Korcynski and Ruma are staying focused on the immediate problems posed by the Cummings Center. Despite a two-to-one majority ruling from the Medford Board of Appeals, Korcynski and Ruma’s appeal on November 7 for the Foundation Permit revocation was not granted because the vote needed to be unanimous. Construction of the Cummings Center continued according to plan, but the Burget Avenue neighbors have not given up.

Ruma and Korcynski, along with the surrounding community, will try once more to halt construction at the upcoming Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Wednesday, February 26. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Alden Council Chambers in Medford City Hall. If the ruling does not go their way, either party will have the opportunity to appeal the decision in Land Court, a judicial body specializing in disputes over property. Such a move would require serious money and lawyer power—it would be difficult for the city and its residents to match Tufts’s legal team from Mintz Levin, one of Boston’s premier law firms.

It is no question that the Joyce Cummings Center will be an incredible asset for Tufts, featuring an outdoor plaza, public café, and fifteen classrooms including a 160-seat auditorium. Newer projects including the Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex (574 Boston Avenue) and the Science and Engineering Complex are perfect examples of the benefits that Tufts students and faculty gain from renovations. However, we must remain cognizant of instances where student life improves at the expense of the surrounding community.

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