Charlesview and the Future

The day that I first met Josephine Fiorentino—then chair of the board of directors for the Charlesview Apartments—she spoke with passion about the historical importance of the 213-unit affordable housing development as a community within Allston. She did not meet with me to dwell on the past or to bemoan the difficult challenges of operating an aging housing complex like Charlesview. She made it abundantly clear that what she and her fellow Charlesview board members were focused on was the long term future of Charlesview; and that, they thought, involved Harvard.

Today, Charlesview still works in the way that it was originally intended by the consortium of religious organizations that established it 35 years ago.

The Charlesview Apartments provide decent, affordable housing for people who, without this valuable resource, might be subject to the fears and frustrations that haunt so many families who are unable to find housing within their means.

Josephine knew that Harvard was beginning to actively engage with the Allston neighborhood and the City of Boston in a community planning process that centered around the University’s long-term aspirations for growth. Given the obvious intersection of interests and timelines, Josephine explained, it seemed worthwhile for Charlesview and Harvard to begin to consider their shared future in Allston.

Josephine extended an invitation to Harvard to begin a dialogue with the Charlesview board about a possible agreement that would result in the Charlesview Apartments remaining a valuable community housing resource well into the future. The agreement would rest on the principle of mutual benefit and would focus on an exchange of land.

This was not a request for support. This was a proposal made within the harsh reality of the nation’s affordable housing landscape, where funds to create new affordable units are scarce. Equally scarce are the government dollars that could prolong the lifespan of an aging facility like Charlesview.

Josephine and her board understood this reality and embraced the challenge of how to prepare for the future.

For Harvard, the potential for “Barry’s Corner”—the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue just beyond the edge of the Harvard Business School campus—to become a vibrant crossroads for a growing campus was clear. It could become a new hub of the long-established Allston neighborhood with amenities for the entire community. Within the broader context of the North Allston neighborhood planning process, the possibility was raised for the current Charlesview site to be transformed to a new cultural gateway that would welcome Allston to the Harvard campus. The residents of Charlesview, along with their neighbors, would be but a short stroll away.

We also understood, however, that this was about people’s homes, and as a good neighbor, it was important that any agreement serve the Charlesview mission and its residents. The three-year conversation between Charlesview and Harvard has kept Josephine’s expressed concerns and principles at the forefront. The discussion has focused on the elements of a shared future—how to preserve the housing and the mission that brought Charlesview to life many years ago; how to ensure that Charlesview and the hope it gave to hundreds of families will exist many years hence; how to enable Charlesview to provide new homes for its existing residents while preserving the affordability upon which they depend; how to ensure access to public transit, proximity to amenities, and improved open space in a relocation; how to preserve a community that is a neighbor to Harvard and an important part of Allston.

Unfortunately, Josephine Fiorentino will not see the new Charlesview take shape. She passed away in September of last year. But, as I came to know her, it was clear that Josephine was not concerned at all that she might personally witness the day that these goals were realized. She simply wanted to be sure that that day would come.

Kevin A. McCluskey ’76 is Harvard’s director of community relations.