Allston Hangs Hopes On Harvard Growth

For years, Cambridge activists have protested every parcel Harvard has purchased and every building Harvard has planned, saying that the city is far too densely developed already.

But across the river—where Harvard now owns 271 acres of land—a vastly different planning process is taking place.

The Allston community has welcomed Harvard expansion and tacked its hopes for a revitalized community on Harvard’s vision for a new Allston campus.

Not everyone wins with a new Allston, however. Harvard’s presence threatens to send rents through the roof and force Allston’s young renters to look for new homes. And Allston’s industries and auto-repair shops face a community that wants them out to make way for a new Allston, a homeowner’s paradise.

“Their property values will surely increase. The people who rent are surely going to suffer,” says Chair of Harvard’s Department of Urban Planning and Design Alex Krieger.

Now and Then

When Harvard revealed its secret purchase of 51 acres of land in North Allston five years ago, Boston’s mayor called the move “arrogant” and residents were incensed.

“Harvard had the resources to buy up the entire neighborhood,” said Allston Civic Association President Paul Berkeley. “People looked at the size and they got very nervous.”

According to Berkeley, those fears calmed and people have realized that there are benefits to having just one owner of nearly all the non-residential land in Allston.

“If you look at the amount of land that they’ve purchased, it’s quite large and there’s a lot of potential for development,” Berkeley says. “One of the advantages is you’re dealing with a single entity instead of 50.”

Long-term residents and property owners say they are excited at the prospect of having a new Harvard campus replace Allston’s industrial lots, truck depots and railroad yards.

“If we look at Harvard’s Business School, the architecture and the landscaping, that is really an oasis,” Berkeley says.

Even small changes could make an improvement to their landscape, residents say.

“A little area with a few trees with some flowers and bushes is something that we’re really lacking,” Berkeley says.

Richard Garaffo, owner of a Soldiers Field Road building that he says is the “first acquisition Harvard made,” is planning to relocate to another Allston location.

He says he is looking forward to seeing the changes that Harvard could make to the neighborhood.

“The area itself to me could really use a change and a face-lift,” Garaffo said.

Since Harvard revealed its ownership and angered Boston, it has gone to great lengths to repair its relationship with Allston and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

In 1998 the University donated land and $25,000 for a new branch of the Boston Public Library in Allston, and it has given $10 million to Boston for affordable housing loans.

At monthly meetings, Harvard representatives and Allston residents discuss long-term development plans with Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) officials and planners over soda and giant cookies provided by Harvard.

North Allston is scheduled this summer to unveil a Community Master Plan, which will mandate the zoning for Harvard’s future development.

Backstreets Be Gone

At a recent North Allston Planning meeting, representatives of the BRA’s Backstreets program came to discuss how Allston’s industries can stay afloat after Harvard moves in.

Menino created the Backstreets program in November 2001 to help “backstreets operations”—small and medium-sized industrial and commercial businesses—stay vital and remain in their neighborhoods.

“What’s you’re finding is backstreets operations just aren’t great contributors to [the North Allston] vision,” said BRA Representative John Belzell.

“On the downside, they’re not really good-looking, you don’t really want them,” Belzell said. “On the upside, you can’t necessarily live without them.”

The community didn’t want industrial uses to remain in the neighborhood, particularly if that would mean they would move deeper into residential areas, as had been suggested by some early plans.

They stopped the presentation to voice their concerns.

“I think it’s going to be a very hard sell to get this program concept into implementation,” Chair of the Allston Civic Task Force Ray Mellone told the BRA planners.

Proposed plans to shuffle land use in Allston to prepare for Harvard’s development have also drawn criticism from the community.

A recent draft of the Community Master Plan proposed property-swaps in which the neighborhood would give Smith Park—a 14-acre patch of soccer fields in a prime spot next to the Harvard Business School—to Harvard.

Residents protested vehemently.

“I don’t think we should give up any part of Smith Park,” said one 80-year resident of Allston.

Another plan would knock down a popular shopping center Harvard owns to make space for housing.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Mellone said.

The BRA has been working to reconcile the many interests of Harvard’s stakeholders.

“It really is a balancing act—the things that we can do is make sure that all the interests are heard,” said Jansi Chandler, the BRA project manager for North Allston.

Blue Skies?

Krieger says property owners will gain and renters will lose after Harvard moves in. But most of the residents involved in the planning process say they don’t mind losing the renters.

A large proportion of Allston’s renters are students from Boston College, Boston University and other local universities.

“The problem we have with transient tenants has to do with the student population—they can be rowdy, noisy and inconsiderate,” Mellone says. “We’d rather have people who are stake-holders in the community.”

Others worry about the consequences for Allston’s low-income residents.

“I do think that a lot of people in the neighborhood, they’re not going to be able to afford to live there in time,” says Allston-Brighton activist John T. Trumpler.

Even the property-owning residents are worried about being forced out by high rents in the long term.

“The people who live here are concerned that [their] children will not be able to live here,” Berkeley says.

Even with all of the cooperation between Harvard and Allston, Berkeley is still waiting for a community visit from University President Lawrence H. Summers, who along with the Corporation will make all final decisions about Allston, and from Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone, who will help Summers execute the plans.

Berkeley says he will believe Summers and Stone are “really interested in working with us” only when he sees them visit the community.

“Neither one of them has made any effort to meet and greet the people of Allston in Allston,” Berkeley says.

Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at dorgan@fas.harvard.edu.