“There’s a sense of trust you must develop as an institution,” he said. “With a community, you have to let them know what you’re doing.”
BC’s policy of open disclosure stands in stark contrast to what Allston residents say is Harvard’s aloof approach to dealing with the community as the University expands in their neighborhood.
“I think the community often sees Harvard as that 500-pound gorilla with no feelings whereas BC has that more personal touch to them,” said John Bruno, who sits on both the BC and Harvard community task forces.
As Harvard begins construction on a four-building science complex—the first piece of the largest expansion in Harvard’s 372-year-old history—residents say that the most important factor that determines the quality of relations with expanding institutions is not what or where they plan to build. Rather, it is whether residents feel that schools are willing to include neighbors in every step along the way.
Community members say that Harvard’s secrecy has contributed to the community sentiment that the University does not value the input of its neighbors and prefers to leave them out of the planning process.
“There is a bit of a disconnect because there was no reason to ever have a connection,” Bruno said. “There’s no reason that Harvard had to work with the community over the years because they’re Harvard, and that’s the way it works.”
Over a decade ago, The Boston Globe reported that Harvard had bought 52 acres of land in Allston under a subsidiary with a different name—an action that residents still refer to as an example of Harvard’s underhanded approach to expanding. Neighbors also point to Harvard’s land swap with the owner of the Charlesview Apartment complex—where the University will fund development without involving themselves in the actual development planning—as another instance of Harvard’s head-in-the-clouds approach.
“Allston ends up with these developments that aren’t Harvard, but, in a sense, Harvard is engineering them,” said Paul Berkeley, who sits on task forces for both BC’s and Harvard’s expansions. “We’re ending up with these large projects that used to be on the edges of town, but they are now being pushed deeper into the neighborhood, along with all the negative impacts.”
Harvard Allston Task Force member Harry Mattison said he thinks that Boston has been remarkably hands-off when it comes to regulating Harvard’s expansion, saying that the city has allowed Harvard “to do what they wanted.
“Whatever they proposed passed through—and in an extremely fast timelines,” he said. “It’s really been a cakewalk for them.”
Linda Kowalcky, the mayor’s liaison for higher education at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), said she disagreed with the idea that the BRA had green-lighted Harvard’s expansion at the expense of the community, adding that her agency was not an advocate for either side, but rather a “broker” to the entire process.
“We consider it our responsibility to look out for the health of our neighborhoods, but that can be achieved in part by keeping universities in good economic health,” said Kowalcky, whose agency is responsible for overseeing development projects in the city.
Harvard’s director of community relations for Boston, Kevin A. McCluskey ’76, said that Harvard must understand the needs of the community in order to make the move across the Charles successful, noting that “the things that are most important to the neighborhood and the things most important to Harvard have a lot of overlap.”
But Mattison said that even Harvard’s benevolence is conducted from a distance.
“Harvard does not seem interested in a relationship with the community,” he said. “They just say, ‘We’ll throw some money at this neighborhood, we’ll do some drive-by charity, and throw a checkbook at them.”
‘NEGOTIATION WITH A NEIGHBORLY TOUCH’
BC’s approach to expansion was markedly different, according to residents involved in the process.
In early 2006, BC held a series of “neighborhood charettes” for the community to provide input about what it wanted to see—or avoid—in BC’s longterm development master plan.
“We learned a lot during those charettes, and we worked hard to incorporate their perspectives into our final plan,” Keady said.
Last December, BC submitted its plans for expansion to the BRA.
Over the next 10 years, BC will invest $700 million in its new Brighton campus, which will feature an integrated science complex designed to facilitate research spanning multiple fields, as well as facilities for the fine arts, a university center, a recreation complex, and housing for 610 undergraduate students currently living off-campus.
Bruno said that he preferred BC’s approach to community relations, calling it “negotiation with a neighborly touch.”
“When Harvard comes to the table, they say, ‘This is our plan, straight and narrow,’” Bruno said. “‘No one else is going to design our campus—we’re the smartest people in the world.’”
Bruno also said that is was not necessarily the impending inconvenience of the construction or the other impacts of expansion that upset the community, but rather the feeling that the neighbors were being ignored.
“Harvard always says, ‘Here’s the message loud and clear, got it?’” Bruno said. “The community’s concerns have not been put into the plan, and it’s been frustrating.”
But Gerald Autler, project manager for the BRA, said that Harvard’s community relations were not simply a matter of choosing whether or not to include the neighborhood in its planning.
“Institutionally, Harvard has a lot of internal politics, and they must strike a balance between many points of view in which the neighborhood is only one,” he said. “Sometimes, those very different constituencies want very different things.”
Berkeley added that it is the lack of explanation of these planning dynamics that worries neighbors.
“The neighborhood is much more concerned with Harvard than they are with BC,” Berkeley said. “I don’t think anyone thinks that BC has Harvard’s resources and money. It seems like every time we have a meeting with Harvard, half the room is filled with consultants.”
Bruno said that while neighborhood relations with BC were not devoid of conflict, the sense of frustration and helplessness that the community felt when dealing with Harvard was not present.
“The fight over where to build dorms is going to be a real tug-of-war, but I think that when BC comes to the table, they come with more compassion,” he said. “BC puts all their heart and soul into the dialogue.”
Although Allston residents say that Harvard has a lot to learn from its peer when it comes to community relations, they remain optimistic that the future still holds the possibility of a true partnership between town and gown.
Bruno said that although BC has taken the more neighborly approach to expansion thus far, Harvard has unique resources to offer the community.
“The community wants connection—the community wants partnership,” he said. “We don’t mind sharing, because how many communities around this world have a chance to have this kind of partnership with this kind of prestigious university?”
And Mattison says the neighbors are not the only ones who could profit from a partnership.
“It’s to Harvard’s detriment that not more attention has been paid to health of community,” he said. “Allston could be a great asset to the University.”
In contrast to this divide between town and gown, Keady said, BC considers itself a part of the community.
“We’re an institution, but we’re an institution that is inseparable from the neighborhood,” he said. “Therefore, it is in our collective interest to work together until we get a ‘yes’ from everyone.”
Despite Harvard’s reputation for being aloof and inconsiderate, many community members say they still hold out hope for a future of cooperation.
“If it was a grade on a report card, they would get a ‘to be seen,’” said Massachusetts State Representative Michael J. Moran. “You can’t change what they did, but you can move forward and try to improve upon it.”
—Staff writer Nan Ni can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.