Residents Express Mixed Reactions to Survey Results

Allston residents had mixed reactions to the results presented at the task force meeting last night for a community survey indicating that education was a top priority articulated by neighborhood residents.

The survey was conducted over six weeks during the summer and included 2,715 residents. The poll, commissioned by a committee that included residents, city officials, and Harvard representatives, aims to be a source of information for “comprehensive planning for community benefits” during the refinement of the institutional master plan.

The revised 50-year master plan, submitted in September, includes a section outlining general proposals for the community benefits package that will accompany Harvard’s expansion. In April, Harvard and Boston signed an agreement allowing the University to break ground on its first project—a four-building science complex—provided that $25 million in benefits be allocated for the neighborhood.

Harvard opened an education portal, which aims to use the University’s resources to provide educational opportunities for the Allston community, as part of this initial benefits package from earlier this year.

Education remains a top concern for the community, according to the survey. While residents said they prioritized adult education, North Allston-Brighton residents said their primary concern was K-12 education.

The survey presentation specifically focused on responses by North Allston-Brighton residents, who live in closest proximity to the areas where Harvard hopes to expand.

“Our first focus has to be the impact area where the expansion is taking place,” said Ray Mellone, who chairs the task force.

Some residents said they were confused by the survey methods presented, an issue that led to a long, technical discussion about the survey’s methods and whether its results could be taken at face value.

According to Sohel Karim, the marketing consultant who presented the results, the raw data underwent “sample balancing” to align the demographics of the sample with what the U.S. Census says are the actual demographics of the community.

“This is to ensure that the results you see today accurately reflect the entire community,” Karim said.

But one resident demanded to see the raw data, expressing skepticism about the validity of the balancing method. Another said he was confused about the “three-tier system” that survey respondents used to register their preferences. “I don’t know what a tier is in this case,” said the resident.

Karim clarified that the top tier represents the top third of needs in terms of importance to community members.

While another resident expressed admiration for the detail and scope of the survey in identifying community needs, she challenged the University to provide benefits sooner rather than later.

“Right now clearly the most important need is education,” she said, referring to the number of education-related issues that reached the top tier. “I hope that, especially in this really difficult time, that we don’t have to wait for so long for the master plan, and that Harvard can do it right away.”

In a letter addressing the impact of the economic crisis last month, University President Drew G. Faust wrote that Harvard is assessing “the phasing and development of our campus in Allston.”

But Christopher M. Gordon, the chief operating officer for the Allston Development Group, said last week that “there haven’t been any decisions made in speeding up and slowing down.”

Karim emphasized that the results of the survey and the three-tier analysis should not be the only source of input for making decisions on community benefits. “This is not a list of do’s and don’t’s,” he said.

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.