Residents Ask Purcell for Greater Role in Harvard's Allston Development Decisions

It’s not often that someone cracks a joke at a tense meeting between Allston community members and Harvard administrators. But yesterday morning, at Allston Work Team Co-chair Bill Purcell’s monthly coffee hour, resident John McQueen did exactly that.

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” McQueen asked Purcell.

Purcell said he didn’t know.

“One,” McQueen answered, smiling. “But it has to really want to change.”

Purcell laughed.

McQueen was referring to what he calls Harvard’s consistency in keeping Allston residents out of the loop on the status of its expansion into the neighborhood—especially since last December, when construction on Harvard’s $1 billion Allston Science Complex was indefinitely suspended.

McQueen said that Harvard is an institution accustomed to making decisions behind closed doors, but its expansion into Allston requires that it involve the community in the planning process.

The coffee hour took place inside the green, periwinkle, red, and orange walls of the Harvard Allston Education Portal, where Harvard administrators and Allston residents sat in a circle in brightly colored chairs, eating Dunkin’ Donuts and sipping coffee.

Much of the discussion at the coffee hour focused on the University’s recent hiring of two real estate consulting firms, Leggat McCall and McCall & Almy, to help draft a blueprint for Harvard’s future development in Allston.

Allston Resident and Harvard employee Robert Breslin, who said that he normally agrees with the University “95 percent of the time,” characterized Harvard’s hiring of consultants without consulting the Allson community first as “backroom dealing.”

Echoing these sentiments, community members said that they wanted an opportunity to speak with the consultants about their ideas for how Harvard could develop its real estate holdings in the neighborhood in a mutually beneficial way.

“We’d like a chance to learn things from sitting down with these people, too,” Allston resident Harry Mattison said. “Throw us a bone. Bring these folks into a community meeting.”

Purcell said that the University would make use of its consultants for “internal” planning purposes—specifically to help Harvard conceive of ways of potentially co-developing property in Allston with other private institutions, Purcell added.

“The first thing is to understand ... [how] to use the private people who know this market best, right now, this moment,” Purcell said.

He added that he discusses all the concerns community members air during his monthly coffee hours with the rest of the Allston Work Team and Harvard’s consultants.

After the meeting, University Spokesperson Lauren Marshall wrote in an e-mail that Purcell plans to invite the consultants to attend a future coffee hour.

In the past, Purcell has invited other experts to speak to the community, including Chief University Planner Kathy Spiegelman.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroopm@fas.harvard.edu.

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