Harvard Creeps Into Allston

University negotiates cautiously with residents

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.

“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.

And at monthly community meetings attended by neighborhood residents and Harvard officials, questions about the future of Charlesview have become increasingly urgent.

Josephine Fiorentino, the chair of the apartment complex’s board, has tried to quell people’s fears.

“The residents of Charlesview will always have a place to live,” Fiorentino said when questioned about the likelihood Charlesview could move at a community meeting this fall.

Charlesview resident Debbie Giobanditto says that many tenants are anxious to know what designs Harvard may have on the property and what their future will be if Harvard buys the Charlesview complex.

“Harvard will need to recognize that there’s more to Charlesview than just the property,” Giobanditto says.

According to Spiegelman, Harvard waited for Charlesview’s administration to take the first step towards negotiations—a step that Fiorentino recently took.

“[Josephine Fiorentino] wrote a letter recently to Alan Stone saying that the future for Charlesview might look better somewhere else,” Spiegelman says. “She’s been very upfront and we’ve been upfront—she wants to make sure her residents are well informed…and does want to move too quickly.”

Ending months of nervous speculation, Fiorentino recently informed tenants that she had begun communicating with Harvard, Giobanditto says.

“Ms. Fiorentino was afraid that tenants were going to start a war, the minute they find out [that Harvard wants to make a deal],” says Giobanditto.

She formed a tenants’ association this December, she says, because she was concerned that residents would not be represented in Charlesview-Harvard negotiations.

Making a Deal

If Harvard works out a deal with Charlesview’s owners—something that might well happen in the next few years—residents and board members agree that the University will need to find a suitable replacement for the building’s current tenants.

“It’s not that anybody here begrudges Harvard anything, they just want to make sure they have a place to live,” says Giobanditto of her fellow residents.

But she added that relocating Charlesview would be difficult for the close-knit community, with its many ties to nearby churches, especially St. Anthony’s parish and its school.

“We want to keep it as a neighborhood. We want to make sure we’re well situated and community-based,” she says. “That’s what we have here.”

Lawrence Fiorentino, Josephine’s son and a member of Charlesview’s board, says that residents have little to fear.

“We are very upfront, very forthright, we have more protections for them than they know,” Fiorentino says.

While Fiorentino emphasized that Charlesview has not had any official meetings with Harvard, he says an agreement is possible.

“Being a non-profit organization, if somebody were to approach us and say, ‘Let’s sit down at the table,’ we would be foolish if we did not sit at the table,” he says.

The building complex, constructed in the 1960s and composed of both low-income and market-rate apartments, is in need of “absolute repair,” according to Fiorentino.

In order to pay for building improvements, the board is currently negotiating a significant raise in rents with the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, which helps to fund and oversee Charlesview.

“The building has almost reached its useful life,” Fiorentino says. “If we don’t do something, no matter what it is, the tenants will be in worse shape.”

Giobandetto, who has lived in the apartment building for two years, says she is confident that negotiations could result in benefits for Charlesview and its tenants.

“Change is usually pretty good and everybody needs to accept that,” she says. “The talk in the parking lot is, ‘Is Harvard going to buy us? Then get them to fix the dumpster problem.’ I think there’s a sense Harvard could make things better.”

But in the meantime, residents are fearful about what their future could hold.

“The unknown is what’s scary,” she says. “Once you know what’s going on you can adjust to that.”

Two for the Road

Sandwiched between the Business School and the rest of Harvard’s Allston property, three other Western Avenue properties form an essential connection to Harvard’s future campus.

Just down the road from Charlesview, the public television station WGBH and its tenant, a Pepsi storage facility, have already gone to the bargaining table with the University.

Both are planning to pack up and leave Allston.

But some speculated last year that the television station’s biggest fans in City Hall—including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino—were irate that Harvard could force WGBH to leave the city.

In the end, the University helped the public television station find a new home, avoiding a potential dispute with Menino.

When Harvard first approached WGBH four years ago, the station was already outgrowing its 13 buildings and considering a major overhaul, according to station vice president of communications Jeanne Hopkins.

“The timing was right anyway to move and consolidate [the] buildings somewhere else,” she says. “We’ve had an interest in being closer together, and we thought it would be much nicer to have a planned expansion.”

Assisted by real estate planners from Harvard, WGBH found and purchased two properties in nearby Brighton, where it plans to move its 1,200 employees by 2005.

In addition to negotiating an end to WGBH’s presence on University land, Harvard also purchased a smaller parcel from WGBH located across Western Avenue.

This piece holds some of the station’s buildings and a Pepsi warehouse that has been a fixture in North Allston for nearly 50 years.

Pepsi recently announced that it, too, would move off Harvard’s newly acquired land to a to-be-built facility in Canton, prompting an article in the Boston Business Journal headlined, “Harvard Squeezes Pepsi out of Allston.”

“That headline was extraordinarily misleading,” says Pepsi spokesperson Kelly McAndrew. “We knew the property had been purchased by Harvard, and when you’re in a location for 47 years you’re going to make decisions about what’s needed.”

Harvard allowed the soft-drink maker to stay on the site after their normal lease had expired, she says.

“Our lease was up last November; we needed to go to Harvard and said were having some trouble,” McAndrew says. “From our perspective, they’ve been a wonderful business partner.”

Directly between Charlesview and WGBH sits another key piece to Harvard’s land puzzle. A modestly-sized warehouse of low-use library materials, the New England Deposit Library (NEDL) sits on land owned by Harvard. By contract, should the current tenants leave, the land would roll over to Harvard.

The depository holds book collections and archive materials from seven area institutions, including Harvard, Boston University, Boston College and the Boston Public Library (BPL).

Currently, Harvard uses the space to store few books, instead primarily using the warehouse to store “thousands and thousands of boxes of rainy-day book bags,” which are distributed at Harvard libraries.

While all seven tenants have a lease in perpetuity—provided they continue to store books in the facility—the BPL has lately been considering a move to a larger site, according to Harvard College Library Spokesperson Beth Brainard.

Past negotiations between the University and the BPL have centered around Harvard donating $2 million to the BPL to fund a renovation project, according to minutes of the library’s board of trustees.

But for now, no deal has been signed, Brainard says.

“The only thing that is in the works is that the Boston Public Library has proposed a new storage facility for their archives, but any actual movement on that prospect has been delayed,” Brainard says.

Bob Hudson, B.U.’s head librarian and chairman of NEDL, was unavailable for comment this week.

The NEDL board will meet in two weeks, likely to discuss the BPL move, Brainard says.

Beyond Western Avenue

Like much of Harvard’s nearly-300 acres in Allston, the area beyond these four properties is encumbered with a number of tenants who have land leases that range from one year to the indefinite future.

Lying on the outskirts of Harvard’s current Allston holdings are parcels encumbered with long-term leases, including Genzyme Pharmaceuticals, which has a lease near the Charles River until 2057, and CSX, which has permanent rights to a 47-acre piece of land for its rail lines.

Despite these major roadblocks, Harvard is slowly making progress towards consolidating its holdings in Allston.

“Harvard is a landlord and that’s a reality for businesses,” says Harris Band, the director of physical planning for the University’s Allston Initiative. “The hope is that we give the business community assurances and protections.”

But the University must go to the table with dozens of other tenants before a new campus can begin to take shape across the river.

Spiegelman says she is confident about clearing the land in Allston.

“Each Allston tenant has a different relationship with us, and as we get closer to the final decision, we will decide how to handle them,” she says.

But no one involved with planning a new Harvard envisions a campus that shares its turf with the current tenants of the University’s property.

“I have no idea what a piece-meal Harvard campus in Allston would be like,” says Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Garth O. McCavana, who sits on the faculty committee for planning housing on Harvard’s new campus. “It would be far less attractive for the pioneers who would be the first to move across the river.”

But Spiegelman says that the current encumbrances on the land—the railroad, commercial businesses, and residential tenants—are not worrisome in themselves.

“These businesses and their leases and easements are not worries for us because we are working with a long-term plan,” Spiegelman says. “A lot of things are probably going to change in the next ten years.”

—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.