Bill Targets Campus Growth

Critics say power shift would result in 'political infighting'

There are few things that unite Harvard planners, Allston residents, and city officials. But in this case all groups agree: a proposal to put more control of University expansion into the hands of Boston city councillors is a “huge mistake.”

Earlier this month, Boston City Councillor-at-large Felix Arroyo introduced a law that would require city council approval before a university could purchase new land in Boston.

The ordinance makes council approval contingent upon the universities making payments equalling or exceeding the value of the property taxes the city would lose due to ownership by a non-profit organization.

The moratorium would not impact development proposals for land already owned by universities.

In January, just as the University was set to release its 50-year plan for expansion into Allston, Harvard bought a 5.2-acre warehouse in the area for $16 million. The University has continued to acquire houses in the Boston neighborhood and its deal to purchase the Charlesview Apartments has yet to be finalized.

Currently, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—an autonomous agency established in 1957 to handle all of the city’s construction and renewal projects—has the final word on universities’ expansion plans.

Arroyo said he thinks that redistributing some planning powers from the BRA to the council will give Bostonians a more active role in universities’ expansion processes.

“The public has no power over the BRA,” he said, referring to the fact that organization is not composed of elected officials. “When you have a planning department in the city then there has to be a public process.”

Arroyo added that he hopes the moratorium will force universities to detail their impact on the city more thoroughly.

Universities “should come to the city and present the plans of where they are going to grow, what affect they’re going to have, and how that will be compensated with he loss of the tax base,” he said.

But Harvard Allston Task Force member Ray Mellone said that taking away some of the power of the BRA would be “a betrayal of [residents’] interests.”

“I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve seen people take shots at the BRA,” Mellone, the head of a committee of residents appointed by the mayor to work with the BRA, said. “In the place of it, they would create a planning committee that would never get anything done because it’s so torn apart by political in-fighting.”

Mellone added that not all Allston residents view Harvard’s expansion in a negative light.

“I think if they were to stop this expansion in Allston, which we think is an opportunity for us to improve the neighborhood, it would be a problem,” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity since some of the land they bought has been an eyesore or a blight and we want to see that improved.”

Deputy Press Secretary for the BRA Jess Shumaker said that her organization has already spent years coordinating Boston’s vision for the area with Harvard.

“It’s more important to remember that we have a huge amount of planning already invested into this process,” she said referring to the four years that the University, along with the BRA and residents, put into the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Plan. “We’ve said all along that, yes, our instance is unique, but it actually provides for better services to the city and to split us up would not make sense for the city and would not benefit the city.”

Harvard spokesperson Lauren Marshall said the proposed moratorium would harm all parties involved.

“Putting a moratorium on university growth, including a planned new art center and science complex, would disadvantage both Harvard and the community as Harvard sets out to strengthen its academic research while the community benefits from the economic and cultural vitality that these projects will bring,” she said.

—Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at lamoore@fas.harvard.edu.