By year’s end, the University’s Allston planners are expected to release a master plan for the new Allston campus. We hope that their report will address a looming issue: what, if anything, will be done with Soldiers Field Road, the four-lane, limited-access parkway that snakes between the Charles River and the Business School. If Allston is to become a central part of Harvard’s campus instead of a mere satellite locale, University planners should, with the support of city and Commonwealth officials, accelerate existing plans to place this massively obstructive presence underground.
The depression of Soldiers Field Road, far-fetched as it sounds, has already been discussed by the University’s Allston planners, and in favorable terms. In a June, 2005 report, University planners identified the reduction of “the effect of Soldiers Field Road…between the campus, the community and the river” as a main priority of the Allston project. In a separate report published in the same month, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the planning firm commissioned by Harvard to form preliminary plans for Allston development, suggested the “partial depression of Soldiers Field Road” as a “long-term” solution to the parkway’s obstruction of pan-Charles connectivity.
Construction of the Allston campus should progress with all due speed. The Allston planning team has already outlined many exciting projects and ideas for the new campus, but the depression of Soldiers Field Road should be an immediate priority, not a “long-term” objective. Connectivity between the two campuses, University planners recognize, is of the utmost importance, but true connectivity cannot be attained until Soldiers Field Road is buried, allowing direct access both to the Charles and to campus facilities on either side of the river. Simply put, the Allston campus cannot thrive as an integral part of the University’s physical space if it is divided, both physically and psychologically, from the Cambridge center by one of the most congested thoroughfares in the Boston area.
The stakes are especially high for undergraduates. During the course of Allston development, undergraduate housing in the Quad is expected to be transferred to the Allston side of the Charles River, opposite the existing Cambridge River Houses. Although this move will finally remove the distance barrier that has divided the undergraduate community for decades, such an advantage would essentially be reversed if undergraduates had to cross a major parkway each time they wanted to visit Winthrop House or Widener Library.
The benefits of a buried parkway would be enjoyed by all local residents, not just those in the Harvard community. As such, Harvard should not (and, given that the land is owned publicly, almost certainly cannot) undertake this initiative on its own. But given the benefits that local residents would reap from the parkway’s depression—for the first time in decades, Allston residents would enjoy unfettered access to Boston’s greatest geological treasure—city and Commonwealth officials should work with Harvard to make this initiative a reality.
A project of this scope will be neither cheap nor easy. Ultimately, however, the success of the Allston campus will depend on it. With strong leadership and effective teamwork, Harvard can help bury a parkway, integrate two academic communities, and give Allston residents their river back.