Residents Weigh In On Allston Plans

While Harvard officials celebrated yesterday’s release of reports outlining the University’s future campus across the river, Allston residents remained anxious about when construction would begin and how it would affect their community.

At a regular Allston community task force meeting last night, neighbors responded with little fanfare to Harvard’s ecstatic announcements, repeating long-held reservations that the University’s vision might overlook their worries about affordable housing and congestion.

The reports’ strong emphasis on undergraduate housing in Harvard’s future campus also took some by surprise and stoked concerns about an influx of students in a neighborhood already bordered by two other universities.

Clutching a colorful Harvard Gazette heralding the University’s proposals, resident Jeff Bryan was ambivalent about the news.

“It’s hard to react to. They [had] talked much about their principles, their graduate and affiliate housing, but there was never much talk about undergraduates,” he said, referring to past presentations by Harvard at Allston community meetings. “Allston already has a lot of undergrads; this isn’t quite what we thought we were getting.”

Ray Mellone, chair of the task force gathering community concerns, echoed Bryan’s concerns.

“We weren’t thinking much about undergraduates at this point,” Mellone said. “This is a little bit of a surprise, but I’ll get over it.”

Mellone said the influx of undergraduate dorms in Allston is a pivotal issue in the lengthy planning process. On the one hand, undergrads bring with them a variety of cultural amenities like student centers and clubs—a top task force recommendation. On the other hand, more students potentially puts stress on an already tight housing and traffic situation in the neighborhood, a concern often expressed by residents and top city officials alike.

“Some of the folks at meetings were surprised about the Quad [Houses] moving,” Mellone said. “For the most part we didn’t have an idea bout how many students would come, where they would be put—those are still key questions.”

How those questions will be incorporated into the University’s planning is an ever-present issue for residents eager to have a say.

“The community wants to have as much input as Harvard does,” Bryan said.

The concerns of Allston residents will become a larger part of Harvard planning come summer, when the draft report of the community task force’s findings is released and the University chooses a long-term master planner.

TRAFFIC TROUBLES

As usual, transportation was a major topic at last night’s stakeholders meeting, held at the Allston Public Library.

Residents watched as Harvard representatives presented an animated computer model demonstrating the various traffic problems in the North Allston road network—including the tendency for backups along the road to Home Depot and congestion leading off the Massachusetts Turnpike into the neighborhood.

If Allston is to have its own version of Harvard Square—minus the headache of more traffic—planners say any long-term development will need to focus heavily on making neighborhood transportation easier.

Among the options under consideration are provisions for a publicly accessible campus and the creation of an “Allston Square” at the intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street—possibilities that appeal to residents seeking a more spacious and less congested neighborhood.

The construction of a new commuter rail and T station, another appealing option, is the subject of an ongoing Harvard-commissioned study of Allston Landing South, a rail yard recently purchased by the University and a likely focal point of its future campus.

Such a station, which could be part of an “urban ring” T-line connecting Harvard’s Cambridge campus with the Medical School and Boston Medical Center, is popular among both University officials and Allston residents, who seek relief from their dilapidated and busy roads.

While short-term solutions to alleviate traffic include public shuttle buses and the elimination of parking on the often clogged North Harvard Street, long term plans call for a makeover of Allston’s major thoroughfare, Western Avenue.

“If you get rid of some of those auto body shops [that line Western Avenue], you automatically relieve the street of a lot of auto traffic,” says Ron Mallis, chief planner at Goody Clancy, the urban design firm commissioned by the task force to collect the community’s wishes.

While Mallis lauded the idea of laying public pedestrian paths through Harvard’s future campus—a key aspect of yesterday’s recommendations—he echoed many residents’ concerns over a potential glut of student cars and University-related trucks.

“How do you make the whole neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly, and how do you make sure that this isn’t going to cause more traffic?” he wondered aloud.

HOMES FOR ALL

The need for affordable housing is also paramount among the concerns expressed by Allston residents.

Yesterday’s reports recommended that Harvard subsidize commercial property rents to allow for an array of shops and eateries, but Mallis underscored the need for Harvard to also extend its commitment to ensure low rents for tenants.

“Harvard can’t drive out existing residents, and ought to make sure that other people who aren’t Harvard affiliates can live there too,” he said. “In order to build up the intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street as a retail nexus, you need to have a critical mass of residents.”

Keeping Allston’s current residents in place—and allowing for even more—is a major concern of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has praised Harvard as a partner in his ambitious effort to increase subsidized housing in the city.

“North Allston’s future is incredibly important to the city as well as to Harvard. There will be plenty of opportunities to think through these ideas as we move forward in the planning process,” Menino said in a written statement.

As parties on both sides of the Charles mull over the various task force recommendations, it is becoming clear that the complex process of stitching together University, city and community interests will continue into the foreseeable future—a long time for Allston residents desperate for their neighborhood to blossom, or at least improve.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” a weary Mellone complained at last night’s meeting, in reference to Harvard’s traffic presentation. “Studies come and go but results don’t show up any quicker than planning does.”

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