Talking to the Neighborhood

Kevin McCluskey ’76 is a busy man.

Typically sporting a tie and trench coat, his tall, steady figure often stands in the background at the Allston happenings he attends—from community meetings to sports events.

Since the kickoff of the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Plan in 1999—a process involving Harvard, the city and the neighborhood—many in the local community, from politicians to residents, have come to know and trust McCluskey, a Boston native, as Harvard’s dependable ambassador.

Following the 1997 announcement of Harvard’s major real estate purchases in Allston, McCluskey—who is the University’s senior director of community relations for Boston—became responsible for overseeing a variety of community programs that Harvard now sponsors.

Aside from reconstructing the Little League’s baseball diamonds, sending varsity players to coach the youth hockey league, and opening its athletic facilities to local children, Harvard, with McCluskey as envoy, hosts the biggest family skating party in town each December.

“It’s a fun time and a nice outreach effort,” McCluskey says in his husky but gentle voice. It’s a voice that has been the Allston community’s only constant source of information about Harvard’s plans, and as many see him, their only advocate at the University.

But while he is in charge of keeping open lines of communication between the community and Harvard, some note that McCluskey is only a small part of the University’s planning team for Allston, which includes urban planners, deans, Mass. Hall denizens and a team of public relations experts.

On the day news broke about Harvard’s secret purchases in Allston, McCluskey had been planning to hold a meeting with residents to discuss improvements to the local streetscape.

But according to Allston activist Ray Mellone, “he had to call it off, because he had just found out about the secret purchase. Nobody had told him.”

Mellone now chairs the Allston Civic Association’s Harvard Task Force, which has overseen monthly meetings with Harvard officials and the community in recent years, says that while the community has forgiven Harvard for its 1997 land purchases, it has not forgotten.

Mellone has moderated sometimes heated question-and-answer sessions at public meetings. While he questions the value of “extreme,” “knee-jerk” community opposition, Mellone points out that Harvard has at times made the community’s planning process frustrating by saying little about its own particular intentions.

“Frankly, its difficult to work out an exact equation until you look at what the University’s proposals are,” says Mellone.

On the table in the planning process are a number of plans for the area, including the addition of affordable housing and the development of open spaces, as well as improvements to its transportation plan and its central streets.

At task force’s monthly planning meetings, eating Harvard-supplied gigantic cookies and looking at maps of the area, neighbors, city officials, and Harvard representatives discuss how Allston’s commercial district and public spaces could be recreated with University help.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the city agency in charge of zoning and development, will also release a report at the end of June detailing the larger community’s hopes and concerns, according to a city official.

Added to the BRA’s challenge of presenting the community’s desires is the number of interests at the table during negotiations, Mellone says.

“Everybody has a special interest, from the mayor, to the BRA, Harvard, myself, the community members, and businessmen,” says Mellone. “I don’t want the process to become the captive of one particular group. That’s always been my chief concern.”

Besides the community’s master plan, another item of major interest to local leaders is the future of the Charlesview affordable housing complex, which lies sandwiched at the center of Harvard property, at the intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street.

Recently, the board in control of the property has been in talks with McCluskey and other Harvard officials about the possibility of selling their acreage to the University, in exchange for the construction of a Harvard-funded housing complex somewhere else in the North Allston area.

According to Debbie Giovanditto, chair of the Charlesview tenant’s association, the mayor and representatives of the BRA will meet with tenants of the housing complex to discuss how residents’ interests can best be represented in any future Harvard-Charlesview negotiations.

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