Harvard Creeps Into Allston

University negotiates cautiously with residents

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Frances C. Moore

The only professional school on Harvard’s new frontier sits in neo-Georgian glory on the Charles River bank facing the rest of the University, with only one building turned towards the campus of Harvard’s future—Allston.

But beyond the Business School’s brick buildings and grassy quadrangles lies a brutal awakening to another America—a jagged, Johnson-era concrete public housing complex called Charlesview, the home to hundreds of life-long Allston residents.

Charlesview is at the center of Harvard’s future campus, dominating a corner where planners envision an Allston Square that will one day be Harvard Square’s vibrant sister.

Back in Cambridge, where buildings are already overcrowded and every dean is clamoring for more space, several high-powered committees are pondering options to develop Harvard’s recently-acquired acreage in Allston.

The two leading scenarios involve moving a cluster of graduate schools, anchored by the Law School, or building a science park with possible tie-ins to biotech.

Before Harvard can create a new campus, the University will have to first dramatically reconfigure the existing Allston landscape, currently a flat and grey expanse defined by railyards, warehouses and auto-body shops.

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“We need to build a vision for Allston that is presentable—but that process doesn’t happen overnight,” says Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard’s top planner and director of the Allston Initiative.

She says that the presence of such businesses might diminish the appearance of Allston as a viable space for a campus, but says that the land could be a college campus—although, she adds, it is a major challenge to get longtime Harvard Square aficionados excited about a campus that overlooks a truck yard.

“One big question as the University thinks about how to move faculty to Allston is, ‘How do you get people excited about land that looks unbearable?’” Spiegelman says.

Harvard has already made moves on three mid-sized tenants in the area just beyond the Business School—and talks with Charlesview, which sits on a crucial parcel surrounded by Harvard-owned land, are in the works.

While two of those mid-sized tenants, a Pepsi warehouse and a public television station, are quietly packing up and preparing to move from Harvard’s land, all eyes are on Harvard’s moves towards Charlesview.

The tired building contains the only residents directly in the way of Harvard’s campus plan—and even though the project’s board might go to the table, some residents are anxious about where they’ll end up after negotiations. A veteran of many long and tumultous fights with the city of Cambridge, Harvard desperately needs to establish a better relationship with Boston if the University wants to freely use its new acreage.

The way Harvard negotiates the building-sized obstacle of Charlesview will set the tone for the University’s dealings with Allston neighbors and Boston’s powerful mayor—relationships that will be crucial to Harvard’s future.

Changing Charlesview?

Allston residents are keeping a keen eye on the University’s moves towards Charlesview. The negotiations have become a topic of intense rumors and speculation for tenants, Allston leaders and the local press.

“Looking at it from an aerial map, obviously this is a corner piece that Harvard would like to have,” says Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association.