Allston Residents To Swap Coveted Land

After three years of negotiations, the board of directors of Charlesview Inc., the company that owns the apartment complex at the heart of Harvard’s planned Allston campus, voted yesterday to pursue a land swap with the University.

The deal would give Harvard five acres of land next to the Business School campus in exchange for a 6.5 acre Harvard-owned site further along Western Avenue.

Charlesview Apartments, a low-cost housing community with 213 apartments, will be relocated to the new tract at Harvard’s expense.

Representatives from both Charlesview Inc.—a faith-based non-profit organization—and the University said that yesterday’s board vote is a vital initial step in completing the land swap.

“This is the equivalent of executing an offer to purchase,” said Kevin A. McCluskey ’76, Harvard’s director of community relations. “The next step is to finalize the details.”

Charlesview Inc. first approached Harvard about transferring the Allston tract in 2003; in exchange, Charlesview board members proposed that the University pay for a new housing complex near the current site. From 2003 to 2006, Harvard put forth three swapping schemes that received little enthusiasm from Charlesview residents or board members.

This past June, 94 Charlesview residents signed an open letter to Harvard calling upon the University to help them remodel their homes rather than push for relocation.

The most recent proposal, which came out in March of this year, offered five acres of land on the same site mentioned in yesterday’s vote, which contains the Brighton Mills Shopping Center. However, there was little movement from the board until Harvard recently upped its offer to 6.5 acres.

According to two sources close to Charlesview Inc., the board’s stances on the various University proposals were guided by a “development committee,” which has met either once or twice a month since 2004 and has a fluid membership of between 25 and 50 Charlesview residents.

The group’s responsibilities were “to hear the proposals, weed through them, and make recommendations to the board of directors at Charlesview,” one source said. The committee considered yesterday’s proposal “within the last few weeks,” then “made a recommendation” to the board in favor of the agreement.

“I think the major item is the fact that there is 6.5 acres rather than five acres,” said Board Chair Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, who leads one of the synagogues that administers Charlesview. “I think this has made a major change in the proposal and made us look at it a lot differently.”

“There have been a number of meetings with the tenants, and at the last meeting, I believe they were very much in favor of the proposal. I think that’s very crucial, and it’s made the whole thing a lot more interesting and far more acceptable,” Halbfinger said.

But Lucia Velasquez Sanchez, who spearheaded the summer petition and is president of the Charlesview Residents Organization, said the board excluded most residents from major decisions on relocation.

Sanchez also expressed frustration at the lack of transparency within the development committee, referring to a July 2006 incident in which a member of the Charlesview Board of Directors allegedly chastised her for inviting a Boston Globe reporter to a committee meeting—an invitation Sanchez denies making.

Sanchez isn’t alone in her frustration with the Board’s committee, according to Robert Van Meter, executive director of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation.

“I think their role has been, from the resident perspective, less than a perfect vehicle for resident involvement,” he said. “The Charlesview board has not been willing to allow the residents to include very many outside advisors in those discussions.”

According to McCluskey, Harvard never communicated directly with neighborhood residents, but rather did so through a consulting firm.

Despite tenant resistance, Halbfinger remains optimistic that Charlesview will complete its move.

“I really can’t see anything that’s going to break the deal at this point, but you never know,” he said. “It’s never over ’till it’s over.”

—Staff writer Nicholas K. Tabor can be reached at ntabor@fas.harvard.edu.