As with any blank tableau, Harvard’s first few brushstrokes in Allston, which have been sketched this year, will be the bold outlines for the entire project and shape the experience of Harvard students and faculty and residents of Allston for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Harvard has a vision for Allston as an integrated campus that fosters interdisciplinary academics and shares its resources with the community. It is a promising one to which Harvard should adhere. Yet within that overall framework, which Harvard’s Allston Development Group set forth in a master plan in January, it is essential that Harvard listen to and work with Allston residents and the Harvard community to fill in important details.
Relations with the Allston community have been rocky throughout the past year. The fall was punctuated by Harvard’s negotiations with the Charlesview Apartments. The low-income housing complex is currently located at Barry’s Corner, a key intersection at the heart of the proposed campus that Harvard hopes will become the Harvard Square of Allston. In November, the Charlesview board of directors signed an agreement to swap land with Harvard. In exchange for Charlesview’s current five-acre property, Harvard agreed to build new replacement apartments for Charlesview on 6.5 acres several blocks away.
A handful of Charlesview tenants, however, protested the board’s decision. The residents have legitimate concerns, particularly about access to public transportation from their new location. We are, however, optimistic that Harvard will be able to address these issues and make the land swap and the new apartments into a deal that benefits tenants and Harvard alike.
The spring was dominated by discussions about the University’s first two building proposals. In late February, the Harvard Allston Task Force, comprised of Allston residents appointed by the City, balked at plans for an Allston art museum. Members were concerned about the extent to which the public would be able to use the space, and they questioned whether a museum was appropriate at all for the proposed Barry’s Corner location.
Residents have every reason to be interested in how Barry’s Corner is developed, but their objections are unfounded in this case. By offering public galleries and meeting space, Harvard’s new art museum will be beneficial to the community. It will also serve Harvard by providing much-needed space for its art collection during the renovation of the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums, as well as a permanent home for Harvard’s modern art collection. Furthermore, placing an art museum at Barry’s Corner does not negate its potential as a commercial hub—which the residents desire—but is rather the first step in making it the commercial and cultural center the Allston Development Group has envisioned.
Plans for the art museum were postponed, however, following complaints that the public comment periods for the art museum, the science complex, and the institutional master plan overlapped. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which must approve all of Harvard’s construction plans, has delayed the authorization of the art museum plans until the science complex is approved, which will most likely be late this summer or early next fall. When Harvard resumes its public discussion of the art museum, it should stand by its vision for Barry’s Corner. It should, however, also work with the Allston community to design the public aspects of the museum to best benefit its Allston neighbors.
Beyond the art museum, Harvard officials and the Harvard Allston Task Force have been discussing a “cooperation agreement,” which will codify some of the benefits that Harvard will provide to the Allston community. The agreement will be tied to the science complex proposal and must be approved by the BRA before construction can begin. Local residents have proposed a wide range of ideas from day care to after school programs, but the Task Force has recently made educational programs and projects its priority. The focus on education is wise; Harvard’s world-renowned educational resources will serve the community far better than other benefits it could provide. In negotiating the exact details of such programs, Harvard should be attentive to the concerns residents raise, such as the fact that many Allston children do not attend their local public schools and would therefore not benefit from such programs.
At the same time, Harvard must also pay attention to the needs of its own constituents, including its undergraduates. The vision for Allston is one of an integrated campus in which the Cambridge and Allston sides are not divided, in which graduate students at the different professional schools interact with one another and with undergraduates, and in which interdisciplinary study is center-stage. For this to happen, the Allston campus must be accessible and welcoming to undergraduates, who should be drawn—not forced—over the bridge.
The first step will be to have convenient, frequent shuttles running from the Yard and the River Houses to Allston. Beyond that, the proposed new undergraduate Houses and student center in Allston will play a critical role in bringing undergraduates over the river. By placing students in new Allston Houses, and by building a student center that will attract Allston and River House residents alike, Harvard can create a unified campus in which undergraduates will share in the opportunities offered by Allston. But as long as undergraduates remain in the Quad and not in Allston, the College will remain centered on the Yard and not integrated with the Allston campus.
Once the plans for the science complex and the art museum are complete, Harvard will have a very important decision to make: What next? When President-elect Drew G. Faust assumes office in July, she will have tremendous power to set priorities for Allston development. We hope she does so mindful of the importance of an integrated and unified campus that will bring the entire Harvard community together in a collaborative new environment.