Living Up To the Town Gown Promise

Residents question Harvard’s adherence to past guidelines as expansion progresses

Just 10 years ago, University officials were scrambling to restore Harvard’s reputation, transforming it from an underhanded real estate corporation to a world-renowned research university advancing the public good. The Boston Globe had just reported that the University had purchased 52 acres of land in Allston under the guise of a front company, and outcry had erupted in City Hall and local living rooms.

For a while, it looked as if the University had succeeded. A series of community meetings, which spanned four years and were meant to guide Harvard’s development in Allston, had mollified resentment across the river, and led to declarations of a renewed partnership between town and gown.

But following Harvard’s submission in January of its Institutional Master Plan, a vision for development over the next 50 years, the relationship has soured.

At the request of the Harvard Allston Task Force, the University’s proposal for an art center was put on hold, and the city suspended the normal bi-weekly meetings for a month, replacing them with smaller issue-specific discussions. The review process, which had been hailed as a successful collaboration between Harvard and its Allston neighbors, was called into question.

“Harvard wasted years of our time,” said Harvard Allston Task Force member Harry Mattison. “It should be troubling for Harvard to have gone from that a couple years ago to the sort of community response you see now.”

Despite the obstacles, University planners said they have faith in their project and its ability to overcome community skepticism. Both Boston and Harvard officials have said that the earlier process was never meant to be binding and have maintained that the uniquely evolving needs of an institution require the neighborhood to be flexible in its interpretation of the guidelines born of the earlier meetings.

“I really don’t think that we’ve thrown that out,” Chief Operating Officer of the Allston Development Group Christopher M. Gordon said in an interview last month. “It was a framework but not a plan. I think it is still guiding our work.”

“For 300 years, Harvard has continued to develop its academic missions,” he added. “And we need room to do that.”

REMAKING THE RELATIONSHIP

Following the controversial land purchases in Allston, revealed in 1997, Boston’s Mayor Thomas M. Menino asked Harvard to fund a neighborhood planning process that would coordinate the University’s plans for the approximately 100 acres then in their possession with community needs.

Over the course of several years, University planners met on a monthly basis with a mayor-appointed task force of residents. In the summer of 2004, these meetings resulted in the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Plan, which focused on maintaining housing affordability, creating open space, and breathing new life into the obsolete, industrial parts of the neighborhood. The plan was well received by both the government and its citizens.

“This plan envisioned a revitalization of the area, the creation of jobs and housing and aesthetically it would be...much nicer,” said Paul Berkeley, who is now a member of the current Harvard Allston Task Force, referring to the intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street known to locals as Barry’s Corner. “It would create areas that the community could use.”

Harvard Allston Task Force Chair Ray Mellone, who also participated in the task force formed in the nineties, said that during the meetings, Harvard played the role of a partner, not of an aggressor.

“Harvard contributed what it could to the growing number of issues that were being developed for the overall community vision—it did not dominate it,” said the long-time Allston resident. “Harvard did not set out to create the thing the way they wanted to do it.”

TROUBLED COMMUNICATION

But as Allston development has shifted from planning to building, neighbors have been dismayed by what they see as the University’s abandonment of the guidelines set forth earlier.

In January 2006, the mayor appointed a new task force to work with the University as it prepared its Master Plan, which outlines development for 250 acres of Harvard’s holdings. Boston must approve the document before Harvard can begin to develop its property.

As of October 2005, the University owned 352 acres of land in Allston, some of which already houses Harvard Business School and the athletic facilities.

Since presenting a draft of the plan to the committee in January, Harvard has encountered resistance from a neighborhood surprised by discrepancies between the earlier guidelines and current projects.

Mattison, a task force member, pointed to the University’s disregard of height limits and its real estate practices—the University has continued to acquire property in the area in ways Mattison said are less than transparent—to show a disconnect from the original plan.

But Harvard’s Director of Community Relations for Boston Kevin M. McCluskey ’76 said that the strategic plan was a framework, and was not intended to be binding.

“I think that what’s happening is some people are interpreting those [guidelines] very strictly and it was never our sense, nor I think the city’s sense, that those guidelines were meant to be interpreted as explicit,” he said in an interview last month.

Gerald Autler, the senior project manager at the Boston Redevelopment Authority for Harvard’s properties, agreed with McCluskey’s characterization.

“The strategic plan was never intended to be a zoning document. It has suggested height,” he said. “I think the intention was to create a certain kind of atmosphere along Western Ave. I’ll leave this to the urban designers to consider how successful this is. That’s their job not mine.”

Mattison added that he thought that the neighborhood’s concerns went unheard by Harvard officials.

“Instead of Harvard wanting to sit down and talk about these things, they sent us back a nine-page letter that basically says ‘we’re right, we’ve been right all along, and here’s why we’re right,’” the Allston resident said in a February interview, referring to concerns the task force raised about the science complex and art center. “There wasn’t the sort of follow-through that the community was looking for when you’re talking about things as big and complicated as Harvard is proposing,”

But Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard’s chief Allston planner, insisted at the most recent public meeting of the task force that Harvard had been taking the community’s concerns to heart.

“Every time that Stefan [Behnisch, the architect of the science complex] has come back, his design has gotten lower and lower,” she said.

“I do want to acknowledge that it’s not that we haven’t heard you,” she added.

MOVING TOO FAST

Compounding the University’s problems is a sense within the community that Harvard hopes to forego long-term planning, jump-starting work on some projects and bypassing a more lengthy neighborhood oversight.

Citing its urgent need for science and art space, Harvard filed an amendment to the existing master plan that would allow them to begin work on a 500,000 square-foot science complex and a 135,000 square-foot art center. The move prompted accusations that the University was moving too fast.

“Any relationship has its own ups and downs,” McCluskey said. “But I think that overall it’s been a very, very constructive relationship.”

Berkeley says that he is still optimistic about what Harvard can do for Allston, “but we have to make sure whatever they do fits our need as well as their own.”

“This is just project one coming out of the gate. A lot is riding on this,” he said of the construction of the science complex. “I think this will set the tone for the future.”

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