Looking For Land

Harvard To Bid on Allston Railroad Yard

Only three years after the University was criticized by a number of Boston officials and residents for anonymously buying land in Allston, Harvard is vying to further expand its presence in the area--and perhaps to cement plans to eventually relocate an entire graduate school to Allston.

Last week, Harvard publicly announced its intention to submit a bid for 48 acres of land that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is offering to the highest bidder. Bids will be submitted on June 29, and the sale will be determined on the spot.

The 48 acres, known as Allston Landing, are contiguous to Harvard Business School. They offer Harvard the opportunity to expand into one of the few undeveloped areas surrounding the campus.

The prospect is an inviting one, according to Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Paul S. Grogan.

"[The land] is very, very attractive to Harvard," Grogan says.

And even while the actual land is not visually attractive--it is currently covered by railroad yards--the chance to further Harvard's land trust without facing community opposition is too good to pass up.

Crowded in Cambridge

The prospect of development in Allston is especially alluring to Harvard officials because Cambridge development has become so tight. Efforts to expand into the residential neighborhoods abutting most of the campus have become increasingly difficult over the past decade.

Harvard's recent Capital Campaign has left the University with the financial resources to develop the campus, but it has struggled to match its goals to the space constraints.

The most ambitious development

project in Cambridge--the Knafel Center for Government and International Study-- is pegged to rise on the Cambridge side of campus. This site, however, is in the midst of residential apartments, and organized resident groups have consistently fought successive Harvard proposals.

Now, nearly three years after discussions began, the Knafel project is bogged down in a struggle to gain approval from a city board.

Difficulties like this one have contributed to a growing recognition among Harvard administrators that there is almost no room for growth left within Cambridge. Across the river, where Harvard already owns a large chunk of undeveloped land, Allston seems the logical outlet for any continued Harvard expansion.

Speculation as to what Allston land could be used for remains very uncertain, according to Grogan. And all discussion is contingent upon Harvard winning the Allston bidding contest.

But additional land in Allston might allow Harvard to relax the tension on the Cambridge side of the river, Grogan says.

"This would open up the possibility of relocating a whole school to Allston," he says.

Construction, even in the relatively open area of Allston, would reflect the new Harvard bent toward community involvement within any development project. No concrete plans have been proposed so far, because Harvard would not be the only voice in these decisions.

President Neil L. Rudenstine says the University will work to make any Allston development fit within the greater Boston vision.

"We would make it part of the larger planning process, working with the mayor in order to develop an overall plan that makes sense for everyone," Rudenstine says. "It's very hard to predict what the needs of Harvard and the community will be 50 or 100 years from now."

Owning it All?

Harvard development in Allston has been the subject of much discussion in the Boston community ever since Harvard secretly purchased 52 acres in 1997, hiding its identity to avoid being overcharged. At the time, city officials and Allston residents publicly criticized the Harvard policy, chastising the University for dishonest and unfair dealing.

The subsequent outcry substantially weakened relations between Harvard and the city of Boston. President Rudenstine said his handling of the Allston purchase was his greatest regret of his presidency, according to The Boston Globe.

Now, with talk of another Harvard land deal in Allston, many recall the previous purchase.

Paul Berkeley, the president of the Allston Civic Association, says the perception of any action Harvard takes in the Allston community will surely be colored by the 1997 deal.

"There's always that question in our minds of, 'How far it will all go?'" Berkeley says. "Will Harvard end up owning it all?"

But Berkeley says he thinks a Harvard purchase of Allston Landing could help the community by beautifying an industrial wasteland.

"People have sort of looked at [the lot] as a permanent eyesore. Harvard might be able to do something beneficial for the area," Berkeley says.

Working on the Railroad

Much of the land is presently used by CSX Transportation (CSXT), and the area is littered by train cars and trucks. Even if Harvard were to buy the lot and slate it for its own development, there is no guarantee that it would be able to rid the area of these vehicles.

CSXT holds a permanent "easement," allowing the company to run its trains through the area. For the area to be built up, any developer would need to work out the relocation of these routes.

"We're selling the entire package," says Robert R. Bliss, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. "We leave the negotiations up to whoever buys the land."

These considerations have not dissipated Harvard's interest, but they have affected planning, according to one administration official close to the planning process.

"Harvard will probably make a bid, but the property is less valuable to us or anyone else than it appears at first. The property is encumbered with leases and other restrictions, and the soil conditions and other environmental problems are formidable challenges," he wrote in an e-mail message.

But most importantly for Harvard is that despite potentially difficult negotiations, the University will not be infringing on residents' home turf.

"The land can be acquired without displacing anyone," Grogan says.