Northeastern shares updated proposals to expand Marine Science Center at selectmen’s meeting in Nahant

Francis Choi, a senior lab technician, and Brian Helmuth, a professor of environmental science and public policy, work in the intertidal zone near the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, on October 1, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern on Tuesday presented updated proposals at a selectmen’s meeting in Nahant, Massachusetts, to expand the university’s Marine Science Center. Ralph Martin, Northeastern’s senior vice president and general counsel, shared the university’s vision to help coastal communities such as Nahant foresee and respond to rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

As coastal communities have faced increasingly complex threats, Northeastern’s Marine Science Center has been an active partner in developing solutions to help those communities be more sustainable and resilient. Northeastern plans to expand the facility in Nahant to provide researchers with state-of-the-art tools to enhance the impact of this critically important work.

A student works with mussels at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, on July 6, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“We hope to be successful in explaining to the town why there is an opportunity for the town of Nahant to achieve a vision and preserve all that is special about this town,” Martin said. “And why our desire to add to the Marine Science Center does not violate any of the spirit or passion that you feel about the town, and helps us accomplish a broader, very important goal.”

Built on Nahant’s East Point in 1967, the Marine Science Center occupies land that  had previously been a military base, complete with gunports and bunkers. Some of the research facilities are built into an old fortification on the site, known as Murphy Bunker. Today, the center is home to world-class researchers in the fields of marine and environmental science and coastal sustainability, who are studying the oceans and developing solutions to create a sustainable and resilient planet.

Researchers in Nahant have studied the flood risks from man-made alterations to rivers, developed robotic mussels to understand the effects of rising ocean temperatures, and found innovative ways to monitor ocean plastics. The facility is also home to the Ocean Genome Legacy, a repository of more than 25,000 marine DNA and tissue samples built to preserve species that may one day go extinct.

On Tuesday, Bob Schaeffner, principal at Payette, the design firm for the proposed addition, presented three plans that address residents’ concerns about the scale of the project and the impact on the views from an adjacent public park.

All three plans involve building an additional floor above ground on the east side of the bunker. But two of the plans reduced and redistributed some of the space, helping the building to disappear more easily behind tree cover.

Each of these designs would place all mechanical systems underground, which would eliminate unsightly ducting and ventilation shafts while also substantially reducing noise. Each design would achieve LEED Gold certification, Schaeffner added.

In an open letter sent to all Nahant residents and posted online Dec. 7, Northeastern  also committed to a series of enhancements to Nahant’s unique coastal and marine resources.

The university pledged to restore the habitat to the east of Murphy Bunker, which is currently dominated by invasive species, which will promote greater biodiversity.

Martin said that workers had been monitoring seawater intake and discharge temperatures in Nahant’s Bathing Beach Cove since March, and that the data showed that neither the current system, nor any of the proposed future systems, will raise water temperatures in the cove.

The university also offered to build and operate a lobster hatchery that will ultimately provide 100,000 stage IV lobsters per year to the Nahant fishery.

“It’s possible for good people to be on opposite sides of an issue. And through this process, we hope that we engage you in finding some point of mutuality that we can all agree on,” Martin said.

An overview of three proposals for the updated Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts.

Jeff Musman, speaking on behalf of the Nahant Preservation Trust and the Keep Nahant Wild movement, voiced the concerns of residents who say the expansion is unwarranted.

“This is about preserving the core of our being as a town,” he said. “Our history, our scenic beauty, our open space, our smallness. East Point embodies all of that.”

Other residents who spoke in opposition cited the size of the addition, arguing that a 60,000 square foot structure is simply too large for such a small town. Several opponents added that while they support scientific research, and the need to protect coastal communities, they would prefer that Northeastern conduct its research in a neighboring town, not Nahant.  

Julie Tarmy, executive director of the Nahant Historical Society, said she was still undecided about the project, and encouraged her fellow residents to listen with an open mind. East Point, she said, has gone through many man-made changes throughout its history.

“It’s been chopped down, it’s been dug up, it’s been filled in. It’s been changed,” she said. “It’s still beautiful. Northeastern has been there for 50 years, and it’s still beautiful. Is it going to change drastically with the addition of this building? I don’t think so.”

Nahant resident Pete Rogers told the meeting that he had initially been concerned about the addition, but changed his mind after getting a better understanding of the proposal. He spoke passionately in favor of supporting Northeastern’s work on behalf of future generations.

“Northeastern has proved, to my satisfaction at least, its good faith when it talks about the mission of this global sustainability institute, which seeks to bring together the best interdisciplinary talent to address the many challenges that coastal communities are facing now and in the future,” Rogers said.

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