The heated discussion that ensued involved residents both on and off the task force faulting Harvard for neglecting to seek community input in choosing tenants for its vacant holdings.
Community members clamored for Harvard to discontinue its buying of properties until the science complex is complete, but Christopher M. Gordon—chief operating officer for Harvard’s Allston Development Group—refused to make a commitment.
“I don’t think a moratorium on acquisitions is the right move for a 50-year plan,” said Gordon.
Residents demanded regular reports detailing Harvard’s property holdings and plans for finding tenants. While Gordon said that 85 percent of Harvard’s leasable property is occupied, he was unable to provide a specific definition of “leasable” and could not say what proportion of Harvard’s total Allston property is set aside for future construction use. He said that Harvard will be able to provide the information within the next week.
Task force member Harry Mattison criticized Harvard for failing to pursue tenants that fulfill a vision of attracting businesses and revitalizing the neighborhood. He noted that last summer, the University leased one of its buildings just off of Western Ave. to Finale Dessert Company—for use not as an eatery, but as a central pastry kitchen.
Residents also faulted Harvard for failing to fully utilize its resources—such as its professors and students—to brainstorm ways to help the neighborhood.
Allston resident and task force member Bruce E. Houghton told Harvard it was “sitting on an enormous pot of gold” and has thus far been “a negative force in the community.”
“There is a resistance to engage all the resources of [the University],” Houghton said. He added that Harvard could improve the tone of its relationship with the community by taking the initiative to put together a package of ideas to benefit the neighborhood, rather than just relying on community proposals.
But Gordon—who answered most of the community’s concerns about Harvard’s actions—said that “we actually view the tone and the relationship in Allston as pretty good,” drawing snorts, scoffs, and chuckles from the packed audience.
Many residents expressed concern that the slowing of the science complex—which has forced stem cell researchers to stay temporarily on the Cambridge side of the river—will reduce Allston’s significance as part of the University’s planned campus.
“I don’t want it to become the University annex,” said task force member John Cusack. “If this community can’t attract the momentum that’s going to make this a stand-alone part of the Harvard campus, it’s just going to become a backyard.”
But Gordon said that “there is no goal to make Allston a sort of leftover property,” and that the University intends for it to eventually be an “equal part” of campus.
Allston resident Tom Lally expressed disbelief that financial difficulties are forcing Harvard to slow the science project.
“You still have more money that you had when you started the science project,” he said, to audience applause. “For heaven’s sake, just do it!”
—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.