The North Shore town of Nahant has just one square mile of land, less than any other community in Massachusetts. Now, that coziness may be fueling opposition to Northeastern University’s plan to expand its presence at Nahant’s easternmost edge.
The land in question is known as East Point. Once home to an estate owned by the family of former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, East Point now houses a park frequented by locals — and an underground bunker that was once used by the military, but now serves a very different purpose.
“So this is [our] ocean-acidification array,” said Geoff Trussell, director of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, standing in front of an array of backlit, gurgling plastic tanks. “And what this array allows [us] to do is recreate different oceans' conditions under an experimental setting, so [we] can create oceans of the future as well as oceans of the past.”
The center been a hotbed of research and education for decades, but Trussell wants it to be more — an international destination for experts grappling with a crucial question: How can humans can keep living on the coasts as the climate changes and the oceans rise?
Ideally, Trussell said, the center would “Bring together scientists that can parameterize the problem; engineers that can develop solutions for a given problem; and then people like policymakers, social scientists, economists that can figure out whether a given solution would fit in a given community.”
And to do all that, he added, the center needs to get bigger — about 60,000 square feet bigger, to be precise.
“Basically what we’re calling for with this expansion is to double the number of faculty — presently we have 20 faculty, and we’d like to add 20 more,” Trussell said.
For many Nahant residents, though, this vision for the center doesn’t jibe with their vision for the town.
“It’s small, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful,” resident Bob Silva said of Nahant.
If Northeastern’s plans come to pass, Silva warned, there will be “More traffic, more college students … There’s only one way into Nahant, and there’s only one way out of Nahant. So all the increased traffic that would be generated by this proposed expansion is going to affect everybody.”
“They’re doing wonderful research,” added Peggy Silva, Bob's wife, who’s active in the anti-expansion group Keep Nahant Wild. “We just think there’s a better location for it than right here, to take and put up a Walmart-sized building.”
In 2018, about half of Nahant’s 3,500 residents signed a petition opposing the plan. The town also passed a wetlands bylaw that could limit Northeastern’s ability to grow.
At a packed community meeting on Dec. 11, the university responded by unveiling three modified designs.
“While we can’t create an absolutely invisible structure,” said Ralph Martin, Northeastern’s general counsel, “we think we’ve gone a long way toward addressing some of [your] concerns.”
Judging from the “Love Nahant — Stop Northeastern Expansion” signs that blanket the town, opposition remains widespread.
Some skeptics may be reconsidering, however. Case in point: Northeastern Historical Society Director Julie Tarmy, who signed that petition opposing expansion, has since changed her mind.
Upon further consideration, Tarmy has concluded that Northeastern has a right improve its property, provided it doesn’t seek to expand even more in the future.
She also called this the latest in a long line of battles sparked by Nahant’s physical smallness.
“When we built our town hall, there was a two-year discussion back and forth, with brass-band parades and protests,” Tarmy said. “Rebuilding the Nahant Church took six years of discussions. Getting the Causeway” — which links Nahant to the mainland — “expanded took 10 years.”
For his part, Trussell said that initially, Northeastern didn’t communicate with Nahant residents as effectively as it could have. But he also believes the controversy has had a silver lining.
“It really forced me, as scientist, to get out of my little world and start interacting more with the community,” Trussell said. “I’ve probably met more people in Nahant in the last nine months than I did I the prior 10 years."
If the ubiquity of those "Love Nahant — Stop Northeastern Expansion" signs is any indication, though, Trussell and Northeastern still have a lot more work to do.