About half a mile past Harvard’s athletic fields, facing the Charles River, sits a gray one-story building.
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.
While the community sees the UOS office as temporary, Harvard Director of Community Relations Kevin A. McCluskey says residents may be convinced that UOS should stay for the long term.
“When we get to the point where the community begins to assess how this use has worked, I think they will see that it’s a very benign use, without any negative impacts on the community,” he says.
“If we don’t have any particular plans for that spot, it may remain that way,” he says.
Digging In for the Bigger Dig
The task force—a joint Harvard-Allston committee known officially as the Institutional Master Plan Task Force—has had a powerful role in the future of both the neighborhood and Harvard since 1997, when news broke that Harvard had been secretly purchasing Allston land for nearly a decade.
While so far committee members have signed off on a number of Harvard’s proposals, discussions between Allston and the University have not always gone smoothly.
In summer 2000, when Harvard presented preliminary plans for graduate student housing at One Western Ave., community concern about the height of the building brought Harvard’s architects back to the drawing board.
Berkeley says the community is anxious to see how Harvard plans to develop the largely industrial Western Avenue into a pedestrian thoroughfare.
“The biggest concern right now is that the institutions tend to be allowed to build much bigger and more densely populated structures than traditional zoning for businesses allows,” he says. “We want to make sure that any new buildings are properly scaled.”
But Harvard’s Associate Vice President for Planning and Real Estate Kathy A. Spiegelman says a significantly higher concentration of people and buildings is a prerequisite to the shared goals of the neighborhood and Harvard.
“If you want retail action and vibrancy and public transportation, you have to have a higher level of density,” she says.
One of the community’s biggest concerns, Berkeley says, is that Harvard’s future development will allow more interaction between the campus and the city.
Aside from its sports facilities and the Business School, the University’s current facilities in Allston include parking and storage space for equipment, supplies and buses.
“We don’t view our neighborhood goal as being Harvard’s parking lot,” Berkeley says.
One encouraging gesture to the city came during the renovations of the new UOS office site.
The University replaced a number of parking spaces with a patch of grass, eliminating the safety hazard of cars backing out.
“We’ve improved the property in that regard, and people appreciated that,” McCluskey says.
Nevertheless, according to Berkeley, it is not the UOS office but the land that is yet to be developed that makes the Allston community anxious.
“There is somewhat of an anticipation or anxiety as to what Harvard’s eventually going to do,” he says.
“We understand it’s a very large institution and its decisions may not flow that easily, but we would like to know as much and as quickly as Harvard knows.”
“Not knowing what they’re planning is very frustrating from our perspective,” he adds. “We’re trying to plan our neighborhood too.”
—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.