Fate of Allston Apartments Remains in Flux

Harvard wants to buy low-income apartments, but so far, residents balk at offers

In an attempt to acquire a prime tract of land in Allston, Harvard has offered to build a new apartment complex elsewhere for low-income residents who currently live at the corner of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue.

But tenants at the 213-unit Charlesview Apartments say they are not satisfied with the two sites where Harvard has proposed to construct new housing in exchange for the Charlesview land.

And in a move that could delay the progress of the negotiations, the residents filed a complaint yesterday with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charging that the Charlesview Board of Directors has “prevented residents from participating substantially and meaningfully” in discussions with Harvard.

Last week, University officials said they expected that an agreement would be reached with the board by the end of the semester. And several people involved in the negotiations say they anticipate Harvard will present another potential location sometime in the next few weeks.

But the residents’ complaint represents another twist in the University’s nearly three-year-long quest to take over the site of the apartment complex just south of Ohiri Field, which has been trumpeted as a spot for either graduate buildings or a cultural facility in Harvard’s future campus across the Charles River.

LOCATION, LOCATION

During the last eight months, the University has redoubled its efforts to reach an agreement with Charlesview, proposing two sites in Allston where it would relocate tenants.

The residents are not opposed to moving. They live in a sprawling gray complex, constructed in 1971, that is aging and dilapidated. They have caveats, though—any new housing built by Harvard will have to be just as large and located nearby, with access to public transportation.

“I live here and I see what goes on,” says Debby Giovanditto, the president of the Charlesview Residents Organization, a group of tenants. “I watch puddles in my hallway. People have invited me to their homes to show me the walls coming away from their ceilings. But people, if they’re not happy, will not go.”

In December, University representatives offered to build a new apartment complex for Charlesview residents on Holton Street, behind the Brighton Mills Shopping Center.

Residents expressed their opposition, stating that the location was two blocks away from the nearest bus line, and the site was formally rejected by the Charlesview board this spring.

According to people involved in the negotiations, Harvard later offered a second site­—a series of plots stretching from the corner of Soldiers Field Road and Western Avenue and bordered by the Citizens Bank building on Western Avenue, which the University acquired this summer.

Felicia Jacques, the director of development at the Community Builders Inc., the non-profit real estate development firm which is handling the negotiations for the Charlesview board, says that site is still being reviewed.

“The site is definitely under consideration but has not being formally accepted or rejected,” she says.

BY THE BOOKS

Residents, meanwhile, are interested in a third site, which Harvard has not said is available.

In July, roughly 70 Charlesview tenants went on a bus tour to take a look at available Harvard-owned land in Allston, including the Western Avenue site.

According to Giovanditto, tenants thought the Western Avenue site was too small, too noisy, and too dangerous, but she adds that they consider the Harvard-owned land behind the Honan-Allston Branch Library on North Harvard Street a desirable location for new housing.

“They liked the Honan Library [area] because it’s still in the immediate neighborhood,” she says. “They’re used to the transportation, being able to walk to Harvard Square.”

Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard’s chief university planner, would not comment last week on whether the University would offer this plot to Charlesview.

“It’s a site that our planners are looking at for a number of different possibilities,” she says. “We’re trying to come up with sites that [are in] the mutual interest of Charlesview and Harvard. There are actually many sites.”

But Giovanditto says that if Harvard wants to clinch a deal, it would be logical to offer the land near the library.

“I think if they want to make people happy here that would be a good site to offer,” she says.

According to Jacques, the board had expected another offer from Harvard in September, but the University said it needed “a little more time.”

Giovanditto adds that she expects Harvard’s next proposal will include the Western Avenue site and not the land behind the Honan Library.

“I don’t think we are going to get the site behind the Honan Library unless we really fight for it,” she says. “I think it’s going to be the Western Ave. site, and we don’t think it’s the best site.”

RELOCATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION

In addition to their complaints about the specific sites, residents have expressed broader resentment with the negotiating process, leading up to yesterday’s complaint with HUD.

Giovanditto and other tenants say that the Charlesview board—composed of representatives of the three local churches and one synagogue that own the non-profit apartments—and the Community Builders are not giving residents the chance to negotiate directly with Harvard.

And in a statement yesterday, the residents charged the board and its consultants with “undermining the tenant association’s attempts to hold its monthly meetings by using various disinformation, intimidation, and harassment tactics.”

The Community Builders reports to the Charlesview board and to a development committee, a group of board members and tenants. Board member Charles Moran says this committee gives tenants power in the process.

“Every recommendation that the development committee has made has been embraced and accepted by the board,” he says.

But consultants for the tenants’ group say that arrangement leaves residents out of discussions with Harvard.

“While the development committee provides a place where residents can express opinions, they are not decision-makers,” says Ann Silverman, a community development consultant who is advising the tenants.

For example, Giovanditto says that soon committee members will listen to presentations from four architectural firms contending to design the new Charlesview apartments. The development committee will narrow the field of firms to two—but the final decision will be left to the board.

In the complaint filed with HUD yesterday, the Charlesview Residents Organization requested that the Community Builders and Moran be barred from participating in the negotiating process for 12 months.

Giovanditto wrote in an e-mail that the “denial of participation” was levelled at Moran specifically because he is the director of property management at the Community Builders in addition to sitting on the Charlesview board and development committee, which she said represents a conflict of interest.

In a statement released by the Charlesview board yesterday, members said they could not comment on the specific charges because they had not reviewed the complaint, but added that they were “surprised and disappointed” by the filing.

“Charlesview and [the Community Builders] have consistently invited the participation of the tenant organization in our discussions in a manner that far exceeds the requirements of HUD regulations,” the members wrote. “We continue to hope the [Charlesview Residents Organization] will work with us rather than stand in the way of our common goal: the creation of much-needed new quality affordable housing for the Allston community.”

Spiegelman said last week that Harvard would continue to work with the board and seek tenants’ input. “This is about coming up with an agreement,” she said.

And when asked about the complaint filed with HUD, University spokeswoman Lauren Marshall wrote in an e-mail yesterday, “Without commenting on one or another development in these talks, we view our discussions with the Charlesview community as constructive and we remain committed to exploring a mutually beneficial outcome.”

But Giovanditto said yesterday that the complaint will probably delay the negotiation process.

“All that the Board and The Community Builders need to do is to put the [Charlesview Residents Organization] at the table to be an integral part of the negotiations and make final decisions,” she wrote in an e-mail.

MONEY TALKS

Several Charlesview board members interviewed for this article say that if they are unable to reach an agreement with Harvard to relocate the residents, repairs or new construction at the present Charlesview site are inevitable.

“We would probably knock it down and put another up,” says board member Stephen Schiff. “We’ve outlived the usefulness of the facility itself. It’s going on to 50 years.”

But construction is expensive, and the board would probably have to apply for federal money to pay for it. According to Silverman, the cost of developing “quality new affordable housing” in the Boston area is between $250,000 and $350,000 per unit.

In order to ensure that no residents are displaced, the new facility will probably have to have 230 units, instead of the current 213—which means it could cost as much as $80 million to construct.

That’s why the board contacted Harvard in January 2003 to see if the University was interested in a land swap, acquiring the Charlesview plot in exchange for building a new complex elsewhere.

It’s an ironic twist of fate for the Charlesview Apartments, since they were constructed in the early 1970s to preserve housing for the neighborhood’s working-class population at a time when Harvard planned to construct student housing in the area.

Now, Charlesview residents could be moving to make way for another wave of Harvard expansion.

—Staff writer Joseph M. Tartakoff can be reached at tartakof@fas.harvard.edu.