When Harvard expands across the Charles River, the Allston community will change forever. The only question is—will it change for the better or for the worse, and according to whom?
But before Harvard can even get permission to start construction—which it hopes to do by early fall—it must submit a “cooperation agreement” to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), codifying its plans to benefit the Allston community. In negotiating this agreement, Harvard should offer initiatives that that take advantage of its strengths—its educational resources.
Though the signatories to the final agreement will be Harvard and the BRA, the Harvard-Allston Task Force, a committee of local residents, met last week to compile a table of goals and proposals for short-, medium-, and long-term projects that Harvard could undertake to benefit the community.
A draft of this table, entitled the “community benefits matrix,” was publicly presented last week, with ideas ranging from tutoring programs and a charter school to improved public housing and public parks. Some of the suggestions have understandably concerned members of the Harvard community, as they appear expensive and arbitrary. We share their concern—Harvard is not, and should not function as a philanthropic organization or a proxy city government. The matrix, however, is not a list of demands but rather a compilation of all the ideas that have been put forward up to this point, according to the task force’s chair Ray Mellone.
Although the task force has yet to formally discuss the list, Mellone said he senses that enhancing education for local children is the Allston community’s priority.
We agree. As a leading academic institution, the best way for Harvard to provide its legally obligated community benefits is to share its educational resources. In the latest draft of the master plan, the Graduate School of Education will be expanding into Allston and will therefore be ideally situated to interact with Allston schools. Furthermore, Harvard already has programs in place to share its educational resources in Cambridge, such as its parternship with the Thomas Gardner Elementary School. Harvard undergraduates are also already involved in tutoring, mentoring, and teaching local school children through organizations like Strong Women, Strong Girls, the Mission Hill after school program, and ExperiMentors run through the Philips Brooks House Association.
When deciding how Harvard should benefit the community, the University should listen to Gerald Autler, Senior Project Manager at the BRA, who said, “The emphasis should be on those things that Harvard can do better than other entities.” This does not mean, however, that Harvard should ignore other suggestions to improve the quality of life in the Allston community. Many of the community’s suggestions for public space, such as burying Soldiers Field Road, improving bridges over the Charles, and beautifying the area, are ideas that will benefit Harvard as well. Naturally, Harvard cannot, and should not try, to meet every request the community makes. Some proposals, such as providing daycare, are not good matches for Harvard’s resources or its mission as an educational institution. Focusing improving public education in Allston will not only allow Harvard to leverage its resources in the most appropriate way, but will also allow Allston residents to reap benefits from Harvard’s greatest strength.