Harvard’s reputation in Allston over the past five years has been a little less than stellar, to say the least. After a string of aborted builkding projects by the university, what was formerly a well-preserved urban neighborhood has been blighted by unfinished construction and vacant properties along Western Avenue, the heart of the town. For over two decades, Harvard bought up land in Allston, at times under fake names, evicted businesses, and demolished property, in order to construct an Allston campus, the centerpiece of which was to be a $1-billion Science Complex. However, the University halted construction in Allston in December 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving a not insignificant part of North Allston bulldozed. Now, Harvard is announcing plans for the Harvard Business School Innovation Lab, a resource center with a myriad of intended purposes, including to develop small businesses and nonprofits in the Allston area.
Creating the Innovation Lab is an excellent move for the HBS community. Harvard’s other graduate schools already have similar community outreach programs, and to put the resources of the HBS to use for the betterment of society, whether national or local in scale is a laudable mission, and it is good that HBS faculty and students are adopting it in this instance. Other Harvard graduate schools already have such programs in place: Harvard Medical School places students in numerous public health clinics, and Harvard Law School runs several clinical programs. However, we are less certain about the Lab’s effectiveness for the Allston community. Although any move to rectify the damage done to Allston is positive, Harvard’s plans here represent, at best, a nebulous attempt at appeasement.
The Harvard community was justifiably angered when Harvard halted construction on the Science Complex a year ago. Students lamented the diminished academic resources that would be available to them, and some professors considered leaving over implicit de-emphasis of the sciences. However, unmistakably, the true victims were the Allston residents. However, this project, along with the successful Harvard Allston Education Portal, seem to indicate that Harvard is coming to tacitly accept responsibility for its actions; this is encouraging. Nonetheless, we cannot stress enough the need for a definitive commitment to fix what was done in Allston. Allstonians have born the aesthetic and economic costs of the underdeveloped Western Avenue stretch for a year; Harvard owes them a revitalized community.
Under this lens, Harvard’s stated plans and purpose for the Innovation Lab are simply too vague. At the Jan. 20 public meeting on the subject, The Harvard-Allston Work Team, one of the bodies charged with reimagining Allston’s development, seemed to emphasize the Innovation Lab’s prospective coffee shop—a feature which seems to less important than its pro-bono consulting. Further, who will be volunteering their consulting services for Allston residents? Materials from the January public meeting only indicate that a “SCORE” counselor will be available for this purpose, without going into detail. Will Harvard actually offer access to the renowned business minds that comprise its faculty, on a regular basis, or will HBS students interact with local entrepreneurs? And although at that meeting Allston seemed to be the focus of the multi-million dollar center, Harvard has also said it plans to use the lab to foster relationships between different Harvard schools. This leads us to fear that the important goal of Allston revitalization could be drowned out by other purposes.
In any case, with the multiplicity of roles the Innovation Lab is slated to play, Allston residents must be made aware of their centrality in this project. Harvard should make extensive outreach efforts to the Allston community to ensure they know that it is taking an active role in promoting local economic growth. We understand that the Harvard-Allston Work Team is not due to release a definitive report advising on the future of Allston development until the middle of this year. However, in the meantime, any conciliatory steps we take for Allston should be detailed and clear. Harvard has not been kind to the Allston community and owes a debt to its citizens; this should not be paid piecemeal.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION Feb. 17, 2011
An earlier version of the Feb. 16th staff editorial, "Cleaning up our Mess," incorrectly referred to the body that is advising President Faust about Harvard's future Allston plans as the Harvard Allston Task Force. The group is called the Harvard Allston Work Team. The Harvard Allston Task Force is a group of Allston-Brighton residents who volunteer to give their input to the City of Boston regarding Harvard's expansion.