Harvard Offers Swap for Key Allston Plot

Deal to buy low-income housing complex would clear hurdle to campus expansion

The University publicly acknowledged yesterday that it had made a new offer to take over a prime spot of Allston land last Thursday, marking the second major move in Harvard’s development of its new campus in less than two weeks.

Late last month, Harvard announced the future site and architect of the first building for its new campus in Allston.

Harvard representatives said yesterday they would swap five acres of land at the University-owned Brighton Mills Shopping Center and provide “resources” to construct a new low-income apartment complex there in exchange for the site of the Charlesview Apartments—now located at the center of the University’s holdings across the River.

Preliminary designs for the University’s Allston campus hinge upon the acquisition of the plot occupied by the apartments, which is frequently mentioned as a future site of an arts center.

The University has been mired in negotiations with the Charlesview Board of Directors since January 2003. The owners first approached Harvard about an exchange, seeking a way to improve conditions for tenants of the dilapidated facility. The Board rejected two previous Harvard offers, maintaining that those sites lacked adequate access to amenities like public transportation.

But the Board agreed to formally review the Brighton Mills offer at a meeting on Monday, and last night Chair of the Board Abraham Halbfinger characterized the proposal as “the best Harvard has come up with so far.”

“I think this site has transportation readily available, which is very much similar to what [tenants] have right now,” Halbfinger said.

Tenants are not represented on the Board, but Debby Giovanditto, the president of a tenant’s group that opposed previous Harvard offers, was present at the meeting, according to Ann Silverman, a community development consultant who is advising the tenants on the negotiations.

Giovanditto’s group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in October, charging that the Board was not giving residents the chance to negotiate directly with Harvard.

Giovanditto could not be reached for comment last night.

But Halbfinger indicated that tenants might accept the deal, although some residents have said they would prefer to move to a Harvard-owned plot behind the local library.

Harvard’s Chief Planner Kathy Spiegelman also said she had received “positive feedback” about the proposal.

Neither Spiegelman nor Halbfinger would comment on the amount of money involved in the possible exchange.

Halbfinger and Spiegelman both expressed frustration with the pace of negotiations so far. The University was expected to make a new offer in September.

Spiegelman publicly announced the deal at last night’s meeting of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, provoking a barrage of questions from residents about how the relocation of the low-income housing complex fit into the area’s overall development goals.

Ray Mellone, chair of the task force that is critiquing Harvard’s plans for a new campus, asked that his group be included in a review of Charlesview’s plans for the new apartments, a responsibility not technically under its purview.

Tom Miller, the director of economic development at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the Task Force had only been informed of the proposal at the insistence of the City.

“We are encouraging Harvard to bring things in earlier rather than later,” Miller said last night.

The University and the Board will solicit feedback from residents who live near the shopping center at a meeting tonight.

“I’m expecting tomorrow night to be a little difficult,” Spiegelman said.

—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at nsherman@fas.harvard.edu.