The Harvard Allston Task Force presented a slew of new community engagement projects at its meeting Monday night, but University officials remained unable to present detailed updates on the future of Harvard's campus across the river.
The meeting marked the task force's first gathering since the December announcement that the $1 billion Science Complex—which had been hailed as the centerpiece of Harvard's expanded campus in Allston—would be put on hold due to the University's losses in the financial crisis.
Over the past six months, University administrators have been reconsidering the scope of Harvard's presence in Allston—even raising the possibility of co-developing property in the neighborhood with another institution. In this period of flux, Allston Development Group Chief Operating Officer Christopher M. Gordon announced his resignation last night, citing the halt on construction as the reason for his departure.
At the meeting, University officials did not present a timeline for moving forward with construction on the Science Complex, which is currently a paved-over, eight-ton steel foundation surrounded by a wooden fence and newly planted greenery. The delay in mapping a clear trajectory disappointed some Allston residents.
"Our neighborhood is anxious for positive news, but there doesn't seem to be any coming at the moment," said Allston Civic Association President Paul Berkeley.
Despite the lack of clear plans regarding the future of Allston, University officials offered the community an update on a number of other projects and initiatives in their report. But many residents agreed that the meeting was merely an "informercial," as Bruce Houghton, a task force member said during the meeting, which provoked a wave of laughs from the audience.
"We have a finite life, and Harvard does not. They can outlive us," said Robert W. Alexander, an Allston resident who worked part-time for Harvard before retiring in 2007. "They listen, they lend an ear, and they do nothing about it. It's very frustrating."
Bill Purcell, co-chair of the University's Allston Work Team—a faculty-led group that advises University Vice-President Katharine N. Lapp on Harvard's development in Allston—broached the idea of informal monthly coffee hours with the Harvard Allston Education Portal. Every first Thursday, Allston and its affiliates would have the opportunity to engage in open conversation with the University about their concerns.
“As a work team we should be clear about what Harvard wants to do and can do first," Purcell said. "This summer is a time to do this and we’re interested in the community’s ideas as this process continues—through the website, through coffee hours, through the BRA [Boston Redevelopment Association], Task Force, or other methods.”
Paula M. Alexander, a staff assistant at the Harvard Business School and an Allston resident, said that Purcell's proposal signaled an effort to respect residents' requests for more collaborative input in the University's plans. But, Alexander added, she was concerned whether enough people would attend during the scheduled hours to actually have an impact.
Task Force Member Brent Whelan '73 echoed the sentiment, stating that an hour or two every month does not seem sufficient time for active collaboration with Allston residents in discussing future plans for Allston.
"They weren't really understanding the nature of the engagement that we were looking for," Whelan said. "When will there be workshop meetings? When will we be involved in the planning?"
In addition, the work group presented plans to enhance community engagement in the former Volkswagen dealership that the University had transformed into a free ice skating rink last year. Starting June 18, the building will house a batting cage and miniature golf course open to the community on weekends.
Construction is also expected to start this month on Library Park, a 1.74 acre plot of land—to be planted in the fall—that will feature 165 new trees and 0.25 acres of landscaped paths.
While Allston residents said they appreciated these developments, they also noted that the University and the community continue to share a strained relationship.
"There aren't a lot of Task Force meetings where we all hold hands and sing songs at the end," Berkeley said. "These are important meetings and there are tensions and frustrations at every meeting. At the same time we look for some positives as well. Harvard is doing a fairly good job at chipping away at vacant properties and its doing well on the community benefits that they've committed to."
—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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