It’s no more remarkable than the television stations, empty parking lots and auto body shops that dot the surrounding Allston streets.
It used to be a graphic design firm and, despite a quick renovation, it still looks that way. But since late summer, a sign with a Veritas shield has announced the new tenant: University Operations Services (UOS).
“This works out pretty well for us here,” says Director of Environmental Health and Safety Joe Griffin, standing amidst the brand-new cubicles inside. “At lunchtime, it’s very nice. People can walk over to the river to eat lunch.”
Griffin has an office here, along with 40 other behind-the-scenes administrators and engineers who are responsible for Harvard’s facilities, safety and environmental operations.
UOS used to be housed in a 19th-century building near the Divinity School. This summer it made its quiet move to Allston.
Despite its minor presence, this small complex bespeaks the University’s continuing foray into the land that will one day house a new Harvard campus. The move was a symbolic one to many Allston residents and provided Harvard with a lesson in community relations across the River.
Staying off the ‘Slippery Slope’
When Harvard presented plans for the new UOS office early last spring, it faced Allston residents dismayed that the University was using the land for extra office space, rather than for academic purposes.
Residents worried this was a sign that, over the coming years, the University would relegate its minor offices across the River.
“Our initial understanding was that they wanted to move this maintenance facility out of a building in Cambridge so they could make room for an academic facility,” says Allston Civic Association President Paul Berkeley. “That wasn’t something we wanted to see happen—pursuing an academic agenda in Cambridge while trying to put lower end service uses in Allston.”
Harvard sought approval for the UOS move from the Allston community task force that oversees development on the University’s 100-plus acres there. The plans were exempt from the task force’s discretion but Harvard officials nevertheless chose to go through a series of meetings with the community.
“We thought it would be easy and straightforward,” says Harvard Director of Physical Planning Harris Band. “But we discovered through our conversations that the community had concerns about predictability. They didn’t want this to be precedent that would establish a slippery slope in terms of how we use the land.”
By early summer the task force approved the UOS move, after the University offered to pay state taxes on the land and establish a so-called “sunset provision” that will bring the site’s use under review in five years.
Berkeley, who also sits on the task force, says the discussions raised important questions. But since the UOS move is a minor part of Harvard’s larger development plans, he says both sides wanted a quick agreement.
“With so much that we’re going to have to deal with over the coming years, we didn’t want to engage in a fight over a small property like that, especially if there didn’t seem to be any drawbacks,” Berkeley says.