Building Community in Allston

Welcome back, Harvard community! We, your neighbors across the river in North Allston and North Brighton, have stayed on through the summer, and like you are starting a new year. In our case that means planning a future for our community which is surrounded on four sides by Harvard-owned property, too much of which seems to be mothballed till who knows when. Harvard’s Allston Development Group has begun construction of the mega-Science Complex, while its new consulting firm prepares a 50-year master plan for the new multi-billion dollar Allston Campus.

The scale of these developments, plus the sewer gases and styrene that Harvard’s construction has released in our neighborhood this summer, can sometimes cause us to lose some sleep. Our most immediate concern, though, is a large real estate project Harvard set in motion but now disavows: the relocation of the Charlesview Apartments.

These 213 low-income units currently stand next to Harvard’s soccer field, squarely in the middle of its new Allston campus. Last year Harvard secretly acquired the Charlesview land in exchange for land and financing to rebuild the complex a quarter-mile down Western Ave. Though the deal was made with the Charlesview’s board, without tenant representation to speak of, and with no notice to or consultation with the surrounding community, it could do some real good: The present Charlesview structures are dilapidated, and its enclave-like design isolates it from the rest of the neighborhood. In many ways the move could be healthy for everyone.

What worries us neighbors, though, is that the terms Harvard negotiated with Charlesview’s board do not allow this relocation to work properly for our community and the residents of Charlesview. The 6.5 acres Harvard made available from its much larger holdings along Western Ave. (well outside of the campus expansion) are inadequate, and forced the developer to propose an economically segregated plan, with low-income tenants clustered on one side of Western Ave., while luxury condos rise to ten stories above the river on the other side. This division by income, a model long abandoned by policy experts and urban planners at Harvard and beyond, is a formula for a failed community.

While many communities would shun the development of hundreds of units of affordable housing, we want to welcome this project as part of a fully integrated, mixed-income community—the model for housing development that has proved successful time and time again. To that end, our Neighbors Forum, working with a veteran planner, has produced its own framework for developing the Charlesview relocation site, and we are calling on President Faust to join with us to implement this alternative.

The Charlesview tenants deserve to be physically and socially integrated into our community, not contained in a low-income enclave. We are actually calling for considerably expanded affordable housing options, in addition to the market-rate units, so that homeowners and tenants of all income groups can be interspersed. Rather than reproduce the stigmas of an older approach to public housing, this plan can help Harvard create a model urban community in Allston/Brighton, just down the street from its gleaming new campus.

But first, Harvard must rejoin the discussion. The secretive and stand-alone style the University has preferred over the years has produced a lamentable history of failed community relations in Cambridge, Boston, and elsewhere. By turning its back on the Charlesview project it has privately engineered, Harvard risks another iteration of that sad pattern. We ask President Faust and all our Harvard neighbors not to let this happen. Let’s reopen the conversation on Charlesview, and this time take a larger view of how this relocation could benefit us all. Let’s work together to design a new community we can all be proud of.

Brent Whelan ’73 is a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Harvard Allston and a founding member of the Allston Brighton North Neighbors Forum.