Harvard’s Allston Opportunity

It doesn’t matter why and how Harvard bought many dozens of acres in Boston’s Allston and Brighton neighborhoods during the past two decades. Those plans have been rendered unfunded and obsolete by Harvard’s financial situation and Harvard’s plans to spend a billion dollars or more renovating undergraduate housing in Cambridge.

What matters now is what Harvard will do both with what it already owns in Allston and Brighton and with the eight-acre site of the Charlesview Apartments that Harvard may soon acquire.

In 2007, Harvard announced a 50-year plan for nine to 10 million square feet of new construction in Allston. More specificity was provided in a March 2008 list of projects totaling 2.1 million square feet that would begin Boston’s permitting process by 2013. But Harvard’s Allston and Brighton land holdings are so vast that even this massive expansion would not touch more than 20 acres of its Allston and Brighton property.

While these plans had their supporters and detractors, little can be accomplished by dwelling on what they envisioned for the distant future and may never accomplish. Instead of debating what might have been, Harvard has an opportunity—and perhaps an obligation to itself and its neighbors—to chart a new and bold course for its future in Allston and Brighton. “Bold” may not be a favored word in the Harvard lexicon these days, but there is an important difference between being bold and being reckless. Timidity and fear create stasis and decay. It is vision, assertiveness, and ambition that move our institutions and society forward.

Students, graduates, and faculty of Harvard have a long tradition of invention and entrepreneurship. The Harvard-educated founders of Microsoft, Facebook, and City Year—to name just a few—took inspired chances that led to greatness. Falling back on what is expedient and simple is not the Harvard way, and that is not what Harvard should do now in Allston and Brighton.

The easy decision would be to do nothing. Harvard’s idle buildings, parking lots, and empty fields in Allston and Brighton could wait until Harvard is again brimming with institutional riches and ready to pronounce a new and masterful 50-year plan. If development of this plan and its implementation were just around the corner, then waiting would be the wise course of (in)action.

In reality, there will be no burst of institutional expansion in Allston and Brighton funded solely by Harvard in the foreseeable future. When President Faust speaks of Harvard’s “new normal,” she makes clear that it could be years or decades before Harvard regains the financial comfort needed for it to independently fund the multi-billion-dollar buildout of its Allston and Brighton empire.

But being land-rich and cash-poor does not have to cause a Harvard paralysis. Harvard’s land in Allston and Brighton is full of potential because of its proximity to the beautiful Charles River, the North Allston/North Brighton residential neighborhood, downtown Boston, Harvard, and more.

In a grand example, Harvard Business School graduate and former U.S. Senate candidate Stephen Pagliuca proposed a $3 billion public-private partnership to be built on Harvard property in Allston. This investment would create thousands of jobs and bring varied and deep rewards to the participating universities, businesses, and communities, as well as to our broader society.

On a more modest scale, Harvard students have suggested growing vegetables at an Allston farm. Junior faculty members have expressed interest in reasonably priced new housing, and graduates of HBS and others could benefit from affordable incubator office space close to campus.

Unleashing Harvard’s ingenuity is possible whether its endowment is $25 billion or $35 billion. Banks may be hesitant to lend, but the obstacle today is not a lack of financing—it is Harvard’s lack of will. Jump-starting activity on Harvard’s vacant and under-utilized property in Allston and Brighton doesn’t require a delegation visiting for several days like the one that President Faust just led to South Africa in November. With Harvard’s local Allston/Brighton opportunity, a combination of Rappaport Institute conferences, seed grants to interested individuals and organizations, business plan contests, and an open invitation from the administration to welcome and consider good ideas could be enough to get the ball rolling.

Referring to Harvard’s admissions process, the former Harvard president, Derek Bok, recently commented to The Boston Globe: “The great triumph is when you find someone in an unlikely place who against all odds achieved something.” Might the Harvard community apply the same spirit and, against today’s odds, achieve something in Allston and Brighton?

Harry E. Mattison is a founder of the Allston/Brighton North Neighbors Forum and member of the Harvard Allston Task Force.

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