“The postponement of the dream”—those were the words used by University President Drew G. Faust earlier this month to describe the University’s stalled billion dollar expansion in Allston, a development plan that would have replaced a part of Allston’s industrial lots with a cutting-edge research center.
Last year’s economic crash brought plans for an integrated space for Harvard’s scientists to a skidding halt, exacerbating the University’s at times strained relations with Allston, whose residents have long viewed development plans with skepticism. Though Harvard has committed resources for community improvement, Allston residents are still calling for increased two-way communication to ease the sense of insecurity associated with the construction pause.
In an interview with The Crimson earlier this month, Faust said the University will now seek to “rebuild the trust between the community group and Harvard,” after halting construction due to financial constraints.
The University has taken concrete steps in recent weeks to improve its relationship with Allston by sponsoring community programs.
In an effort to continue promoting the vibrancy of the community—one oft-cited goal of Harvard’s expansion in Allston—during the past year the University has orchestrated the opening of a free ice-skating rink in a former Volkswagen dealership and the disbursing of community development grants to organizations like the Fishing Academy, which sponsors fishing trips for Allston youths. Harvard has also recently leased empty office space from its large real estate holdings in the neighborhood to an environmental nonprofit.
But the jobs, the increased business activity, and the revitalization associated with a cutting edge research facility that would have drastically altered the Allston’s urban landscape now seem a rather distant reality to most residents.
Faust has reiterated her commitment to maintaining an open line of communication with the Allston community and met with members of the Harvard Allston Task Force over breakfast in February.
“I have tried to be as open as possible in explaining how the downturn has had an impact on our financial capacities and how it has forced us to reconsider the speed and nature of our aspirations,” Faust said.
Many Allston residents said they appreciated the University’s efforts thus far to develop the community, but there remains a lingering sense that Harvard should improve the transparency of the planning process to demonstrate its receptiveness to the community’s concerns.
“I think there isn’t much of a relationship right now,” Allston resident Harry Mattison said. “If you’re going to have a partnership there has to be honest, open, and frequent dialogue—right now it’s certainly not frequent. That’s where we need to start.”
While community members have faulted the University for not being particularly transparent about its plans for future development and the state of its finances, interviews also reflected a sense of optimism that the appointment of the Allston Work Team—a group created shortly after the University announced that it would halt construction indefinitely on the Allston Science Complex and charged with recommending strategies for Harvard’s expansion into Allston—signals a turning point in the University’s on-going relationship with Allston.
“I might say it’s a very hopeful time, that this appears to be the first time the University has encouraged and sponsored interaction with the great resources of its academic community,” said Allston resident Bruce Houghton.
Houghton added that prior to the creation of the work team, Allston residents only had access to community relations officials, an approach he called “ineffective and shortsighted.”
Taking a long-term view, Faust said that both Harvard and Allston would stand to benefit from increased openness.
“I’ve tried to say, ‘Here are the realities,’” Faust said. “Now let’s work for a common solution because we all share a desire to have this be the most wonderful community and the best set of neighbor relations and the best context for all of us to live together, because we’re going to live together for the next however many centuries.”
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