When we first met John Nucci in 2006, we weren’t quite sure about him. He seemed nice enough, but, then again, he did work for Suffolk University. And, in those days that could indeed be problematic.
Since its 1906 founding, Suffolk University had kept growing, as had its impact on the neighborhood. Classrooms in its three Temple and Derne streets buildings filled with more and more undergraduates. Everyday like clockwork these young ones spilled out onto small, historic Temple Street coming and going to class, laughing and talking on their way, and generally acting like college students – which was not always looked upon by neighbors in a positive way.
All that made for somewhat rocky town/gown relations on Beacon Hill. Some might say they were tumultuous; others might even say they didn’t exist at all.
Which was exactly what John Nucci discovered when in 2006, a whole century after Suffolk was founded, he agreed to serve as its Vice President of External Affairs. “Suffolk had never had a community relations department…and it showed,” said the former elected official, seasoned alumnus with three Suffolk degrees, business school instructor and man with many attributes about which we were soon to learn.
David Sargent, who was Suffolk’s president at the time, recognized that for the university to remain competitive, it had to move up to the next level by providing student housing and other amenities. No longer could it be solely a school for commuters.
But more student housing translates to ‘institutional expansion on the Hill’, something the neighborhood dreads. We put our gloves on.
Sargent had wisely predicted that such expansion was not going to happen until the town/gown relationship improved. He assigned Nucci to get that job done.
So, on his very first day of work, Nucci was shown a visual symbol of the proposed expansion: a rendering of a 32-story, 800-bed dormitory and student center that the university proposed for 20 Somerset Street and was asked to present it at a community meeting later that day.
One might say Nucci was thrown to the wolves. “In my heart, I knew a proposed expansion was not likely to be met with open arms…to say the least,” said Nucci. “So my first exposure to the neighborhood and their first exposure to me was when I walked into an angry crowd of around 300 people opposed to the idea. I gulped and got through the meeting alive.
“For years neighbors had had no relationship with anyone at the school and there was a real lack of trust and credibility,” he added. “There was a lot of work for me to do.”
The battle lines were drawn. Residents from Temple Street joined with those all over the Hill and the Beacon Hill Civic Association to oppose the expansion because, they said, the addition of 800 more students would upset the demographic balance in the neighborhood. Beacon Hill had reached its tipping point.
We neighbors feared that Suffolk’s leaders would try to roll right over us as they encroached further into our historic residential district. Why would Nucci be any different than those who came before him?
He was. In fact, he turned out to be a very good guy…a great ambassador for Suffolk, according to Beacon Hiller and Suffolk Trustee Russell Gaudreau said.
“Nucci was an excellent listener who, by opening the communication channels, actively solicited community input. He paid attention to us, listened and heard our concerns, and held endless meetings with our residents,” said Temple Street resident Becky Mulzer, who lives very close to the Suffolk classrooms.
The result of all those meetings? In September 2015, Suffolk and the neighbors stood and cheered together at the opening of the 20 Somerset building, not as first planned renovated as a dorm for 800 students but instead as a state-of-the-art science and flagship academic building. It is a center of learning that earns rare reviews from its students and faculty, attracts students from around the world, and has lifted Suffolk up to the next level.
As for Beacon Hill, Nucci and the neighbors worked together to develop an Institutional Master Plan for the university and a non-expansion agreement. We will no longer fear an expansion by Suffolk into Beacon Hill’s historic district.
“It was a ‘win-win’ for the neighborhood and for the university, and it has made all the difference in the world,” said Mulzer, who added that Temple Street is a lot quieter these days with fewer students coming and going.
Nucci has since overseen a complete transformation of Suffolk’s campus footprint from Beacon Hill to downtown Boston with a residence hall at 10 West Street and the restoration of the historic Modern Theatre as a theater, gallery and residence hall. On Beacon Hill he led the sale of Suffolk’s buildings, now turned into much needed housing for families.
“But for me, more important things occurred than the bricks and mortar structures,” said Nucci. “First is that I was able to…move Suffolk’s center of gravity away from the residential area and second, most importantly, to restore trust and credibility with the residents. There is absolutely nothing that I value more than the actual friendships and relationships I developed with so many of our neighbors.”
We too consider Nucci a good friend and neighbor. He calls us to talk about Suffolk’s latest plans and helps with little things, like taking care of the Temple Street Park across from his now-sold Donahue Building.
Every year we look forward to seeing him and his wife Peggy at the Beacon Hill Gala. At last month’s Gala, however, he didn’t seem quite as chipper as usual.
It seems our friend and neighbor now has a problem of his own. He needs a new kidney. Soon.
Think about it. Can you help?