Building for Today and Tomorrow

House renovations and Allston development should emphasize student and community

The following op-ed will appear in a print edition of The Crimson the week of June 2.

Bureaucratic impediments and rigid traditions make it hard for a 350-year-old institution like Harvard to stay on the cutting edge. Keeping pace with modern science and technology requires institutions not only to update their curricula, but also to maintain state-of-the-art facilities. But campus development for an institution like Harvard is a complicated process that involves years of planning—incorporating modern architecture and environmentally conscious practices with an aesthetic commitment to red brick neo-Georgian architecture. Development on this scale also includes accommodating all the parties involved, from students and academic departments to city governments and the residents of affected neighborhoods.

Harvard is currently engaged in two development projects over the medium and long terms. Dormitory renovation projects at other Ivy League universities, in addition to widespread dissatisfaction among students, prompted the College to announce a 15-year, $1 billion renovation of undergraduate living spaces. Meanwhile, the university continued to make progress on the Allston Redevelopment Plan, a project which seeks to develop Harvard-land across the Charles over the next half-century.

It has been 25 years since Harvard embarked on a renovation of the Houses, and they show their age. Perennial overcrowding concerns and complaints about malfunctioning facilities were brought to the fore this year when Winthrop House ended the de facto practice of promising singles to seniors and, later, when basements in that house flooded with human waste and sewage. Add these to a laundry list of complaints about the River Houses–everything from inoperable faucets and dysfunctional heaters to overflowing toilets, leaks, and massive cockroach infestations.

In sum, Harvard housing leaves something to be desired, especially by comparison to Yale, which will soon complete an extensive renovation of its 12 residential colleges, or Princeton, which plans to construct a brand new $100 million dormitory.

Thankfully, it seems the administration has taken heed of these criticisms and unflattering comparisons. University Hall’s praiseworthy proposal to to renovate undergraduate housing includes a complete overhaul of interior spaces in each of the 12 houses, without compromising the rich architectural and historical integrity of the buildings. The announcement was greeted enthusiastically, albeit tempered by the knowledge that our children’s generation has more to look forward to than we do. In the meantime, the University should not overlook the current conditions of undergraduate housing. A 15-year renovation project does little to alleviate the substantial problems with sanitation and facilities maintenance facing today’s students.

Going forward, we hope that the student-faculty committee guiding the project focuses on changes to the layout of bedrooms, structural updates, and social spaces. Existing undergraduate rooms were designed to house fewer students than they do, and are in dire need of being reorganized to eliminate walk-throughs, crowded doubles, and cramped common rooms. In conjunction with the College’s decision to re-open Mass. Hall to freshmen, restructuring the Houses will hopefully help to alleviate the housing crunch that precipitated the University’s profoundly unpopular decision to abruptly end transfer admissions for the next two years.

Moreover, the house renovation project presents an opportunity to address the College’s noted lack of social space by foregoing the traditional but cumbersome vertical entryways in favor of the more social horizontal hallways, and by revamping communal spaces in house basements and common spaces to include kitchens, gyms, as well as other recreational facilities. In concert, these changes should help cultivate the vibrant House communities that Harvard purports to offer its undergraduates.

In the same way that the eventual house renovations will need to meet the concerns of students and the city of Cambridge, Harvard’s other, longer term development project across the river in Allston is faced with the sometimes exorbitant demands of the city planning bureaucracy and the broader Allston community. No matter how excessive the demands of Allston residents may seem, however, Harvard should always err on the side of generosity, not only to preserve the best possible relationship with the Allston community, but because, as the world’s richest university, we can afford to undertake the responsibilities to be an exemplary neighbor.

Notwithstanding Harvard’s shady dealings in the original acquisition of Allston property during the nineties, the University led by President Drew G. Faust has been extremely receptive to the community’s needs and desires. In a land-swap deal with the owners of the Charlesview apartments, a low-income housing complex that sits on a plot of land central to the development project, Harvard has demonstrated that it had come full circle in its dealing with Allston residents—as part of the deal, Harvard agreed to erect highly subsidized replacement housing units nearby.

This is by no means the only example of Harvard’s sensitivity to Allston’s concerns.

During construction, the University has promised—and will hopefully follow through on its pledge—to reduce noise, dust, and vibrations, as well as to maintain active communication between the Allston-Harvard Task Force and Harvard Construction Mitigation website to limit the days construction will continue past 6 p.m. Harvard has also expressed support for a measure to provide an after–school tutoring and lecture program to Allston children; in this vein, Harvard ought to entertain the possibility of opening a University affiliated high-school in Allston. We hope that in addition to these steps, Harvard will open its shuttles to residents, create plenty of green spaces, and give the Allston community access to the planned art museum.

Another important consideration in the early stages of the Allston project has been Harvard’s emphasis on sustainability. Although Harvard’s commitment to reducing its environmental impact reaches back several years, its most progressive measure by far came this past October in an agreement on environmental standards, in which Harvard pledged to abide by a strict cap on greenhouse gas emissions at 50 percent below the national standards. We are hopeful that this agreement will serve as the standard for future Harvard projects, as well as set a standard for other institutions of higher learning to follow.

Both the House renovations and redevelopment in Allston, however, are still in their early stages. No current undergraduates can expect to reap the benefits of opulent dormitories or state of the art science facilities. So while we remain enthusiastic about the University’s projects and what they mean for future students, in the meantime, University Hall, don’t forget about colonies of cockroaches living under the floorboards or the hail that makes it through our chimnies.