Allston Residents Work To Find Voice as University Expansion Crawls Forward

Just two years after his inauguration, former University President Lawrence H. Summers penned a 5800 word letter to the Harvard community that left no doubt about what sort of a mark he intended to make: Harvard would build itself into an unparalleled center of interdisciplinary research, and it would do so by undergoing an unprecedented expansion. Thrust into prominence as the canvas for the University’s grand vision was the neighboring community of Allston—a city once dominated by railroad stockyards and cattle slaughterhouses that now bore the weight of a new president’s vision and a centuries-old University’s future.

But the city’s newfound standing has not always been greeted cheerily by residents who, in the years since Summers’ first bold pronouncements, have often worried that their voices have been muted in a development process largely dictated by the interests of University developers.

The situation was brought to a crescendo in February when Harvard announced that it would be slowing construction of its Allston Science Complex, which has been slated as the first step towards realizing the University’s 50-year development framework. The slowdown left an especially bitter aftertaste in the mouths of local residents and some City officials, who say they sanctioned an accelerated approval timeline for the project only because the University had insisted that the complex was vital to furthering life-saving stem cell research.

Now, with the University planning to temporarily house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in its existing Cambridge campus, residents have come to question the University’s commitment to developing the neighborhood, saying they feel jilted by Harvard’s change of focus.

“The Science Complex is a promise that was broken to us,” said State Representative Michael J. Moran, whose constituency includes Allston, Brighton, and Brookline.

But the sharp turn of events, precipitated by an unprecedented economic downturn that has wreaked havoc on University finances, has also served to rally diverse community interests around a common cause.

“Where I think everyone has really come together lately is to say the Science Complex really can’t be stopped,” said Aaron MacDonald, an Allston-Brighton resident for 11 years.

The University has said it will wait to re-examine the Science Complex’s construction pace until year’s end when its fiscal situation is more clear. Some residents see the intervening months as an opportunity to be proactive and encourage the University to address other long-standing neighborhood concerns. But there is no indication that the larger riddle—ensuring that a powerful University’s quest to remake a city does not drown out the voices of its residents—will come any closer to a resolution.

A LIMITED PROCESS

Residents have struggled for many years to inject their interests and concerns into a development process that does not require community approval for the University’s plans. Allston development projects need only be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority—a powerful city agency beholden to the Mayor and tasked with overseeing the entire City of Boston’s planning and development projects—in order for them to be implemented.

Community members and the BRA did successfully negotiate a cooperation agreement with Harvard last spring requiring the University to provide $25 million worth of benefits to the neighborhood while proceeding with the construction of the Science Complex. The agreement is one of the instances where the BRA has drawn praise from Allston residents for skillfully balancing community concerns with institutional interests, but it has not been enough to allay questions about the group’s ability to be responsive to community needs.

The BRA has endured perennial criticism for its political ties and its far-reaching responsibility to oversee many of the key stages of construction projects—an arrangement that the group says allows for cohesion between planning and implementation, but which some feel puts the BRA in a position to subordinate community concerns to developer interests.

“[The BRA should] simplify things in a way that’s accessible to any regular person,” said Boston City Councillor Sam Yoon at a recent community meeting in which he advocated for a re-structuring of the BRA’s authority. “Let the community make the tradeoffs.”

Proponents of the current structure add that the community has the chance to offer its say through the Harvard Allston Task Force, an advisory panel of local residents appointed by the Mayor to facilitate discourse between the University, City, and the community at bi-weekly meetings.

But the Task Force is vested with no legal authority and is often restricted to examining concerns explicitly tied to Harvard’s development plans.

“The Task Force is the BRA’s entity. They set the agenda. They run the meetings. It’s not at all in practice an open, community-driven, responsive group—there’s a bounded mandate, a wall inside which it lives,” said Harry Mattison, an Allston resident and Task Force member.

SOLICITING INPUT

Despite these obstacles, many community members see the Science Complex slowdown as a chance for the Task Force to reinvigorate itself—taking a more participatory role in understanding and addressing larger community concerns, such as leasing issues and development of unremarkable commercial areas such as Barry’s Corner and the Holton Street Corridor.

“We need to be proactive for ourselves, not just sitting and waiting while Harvard decides if [it is] slowing down its expansion and planning,” Mattison said. “That doesn’t mean the neighborhood doesn’t exist. There’s still plenty of issues, opportunities to make the neighborhood better.”

BRA officials have recently committed to a revitalization of community-wide planning efforts that had been sidelined in recent months due to concern over the Science Complex slowdown. Affordable housing, commercial development, and public open spaces are among the areas currently pegged for consideration.

“We’re asking Harvard to be more forward, to participate,” said Michael F. Glavin, Deputy Director of Institutional Development, at a recent neighborhood meeting. “I don’t think the level of participation was ever anything close to what it should be going forward.”

FILLING A ROLE

The BRA had once considered appointing a separate task force to address the community-wide planning process, but eventually decided that the considerations were not technical enough to justify cluttering the existing landscape with another planning committee. Today, the BRA runs the community-wide planning meetings and invites members of the Allston Task Force to participate, given their prominent leadership role in the community.

Gerald Autler, the senior Project Manager for the BRA, acknowledged that the current Task Force was appointed specifically to address Harvard’s future institutional campus, and as a result is not necessarily geographically or demographically representative of the entire Allston community—which contains many immigrants and language groups. He said that the BRA has sent out meeting notices in multiple languages and provided translators, but that such opportunities were rarely taken advantage of.

“[It’s] always a challenge...but in terms of people who are interested and do want to come to meetings and feel comfortable participating, yeah, I think we’ve gotten a really good turnout and heard from whole range of people,” Autler said.

In an attempt to address community planning concerns more inclusively, various neighborhood groups have been created to examine issues ranging from vacant property holdings to zoning laws and transportation to affordable housing and working-class interests.

Task Force member Harry Mattison, who serves as a member of the Allston Brighton North Neighbors Forum, said that “the advantage [of our group] is that it’s run by the neighborhood, so we can decide what we want to talk about, when we meet, who’s going to talk, instead of sitting and listening to hours of presentations.”

Mattison added that the formation of different community groups is not a “competition” nor a “knock on the Task Force,” but simply the result of “a role that needed to be filled.”

But Jake Carman, a founder of the Allston Brighton Neighborhood Assembly, who has been far more critical of the current planning structure than Mattison, said that “you have to question where exactly the power lies” in the BRA’s development process, which he criticized as “incredibly unfair” because the community is unable to vote on the BRA’s decisions.

While neighborhood groups such as Mattison’s attempt to “work within the system and the BRA process, trying to get the best community benefits,” Carman said, his group “is more interested in taking the struggle outside the confines of the BRA’s process.”

“Our goals aren’t necessarily to take the most crumbs we can from Harvard,” Carman said. “Our goal is to make sure Allston Brighton remains affordable for the working class population.”

Ray Mellone, chair of the Task Force, said that not all community groups have worked in the “best interest of the community,” and that some may be motivated by a politically-derived dislike for institutional development.

“Some people just want to stay and get angry,” Mellone said, adding that he believed the current planning structure allowed all parties to express their opinions.

Regardless of their neighborhood group affiliation, Allston residents are unified by one common complaint—the lack of transparency in Harvard’s decision-making process, especially when it comes to the University’s leasing of its vacant Allston properties.

“If Harvard had communicated to the community from day one, they would have met with a lot less resistance [from the community],” said Aaron MacDaniel, who has been co-writing a new blog that started last month with the purpose of analyzing Harvard’s impact on the Allston neighborhood.

Matthew De Remer, who co-authors the blog, said that while he and MacDaniel both look forward to the benefits of Harvard’s presence in the neighborhood, many residents felt “hurt” when they discovered Harvard had been buying many properties in Allston under other company names without community knowledge or input.

MacDaniel added that he saw it as “spin and dishonesty” when the University, apparently playing to community concerns that it was leaving property vacant, said 85 percent of its “leasable” property was already leased. The Crimson later reported that Harvard had not yet informed the public that 790,000 square feet of its property was deemed “non-leasable” because the spaces were either unfit for tenants or reserved for University construction plans.

The continued presence of empty lots has riled residents already concerned about the slow speed of the development process, some of whom fear that the end of the construction efforts is impossibly far away.

“I gag every time I hear 50 years,” longtime resident Leonard W. Kelliher exclaimed at a Task Force meeting in February. “I’m looking forward to a lot of the benefits we’re getting by it. But in 50 years we’ll all be gone by global warming or something. Let’s talk about now, the present. Fill up these empty shacks.”

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.