Patricia Kelliher has lived in Allston all her life, so when she wanted to open an American-style cafe, the neighborhood seemed like the perfect location.
“I would have loved to be in Allston, that’s my home,” Kelliher says with a touch of melancholy.
Two years ago Kelliher approached Harvard about leasing land on Western Avenue. She says it seemed like a great match: the University needed to fill empty lots and she wanted to start a small business. Kelliher says she contacted Harvard multiple times. She hired construction workers to draw plans and make budget estimates. But ultimately the University was not interested in her offer. As a result, she opened the Happy Owl Cafe, a colorful corner restaurant serving vegetarian friendly subs and soups, in Brighton.
“It’s hard to keep small businesses if you don’t have strong support,” says Kelliher. “An institution like Harvard could be helpful in that sense.”
The University has leased 12 properties in Allston this year, a step forward in its promise to the community to bring service and retail outlets to the neighborhood. But Allston residents say that they continue to feel alienated from the planning process and are concerned that the new businesses do not cater to their everyday needs.
In December 2009, Harvard halted construction on the Allston Science Complex—a series of buildings with an estimated $1 billion price tag that were intended to be a mecca for stem cell research—due to financial constraints. With the project indefinitely paused, University President Drew G. Faust sent a letter to the community promising to focus on developing the neighborhood in other ways. Her approach to Allston was three-pronged: lease and improve vacant property, engage the community, and develop Harvard’s campus when feasible.
Earlier that year, Harvard presented Allston with a strategic plan outlining the University’s intent to demolish the Kmart and Frugal Fannies—located in the Brighton Mills Shopping Center—and instead create an amalgamation of open and residential spaces, and businesses that provide services and retail. The construction was part of a plan to reinvigorate Western Avenue, turning it into a thriving “main street.” Leasing vacant property in the neighborhood would also work toward this end.
In the past year, Harvard says it has advanced significantly in achieving its goals, leasing over 118,000 acres of land over the past six months and letting property to two restaurants, Stone Hearth Pizza Co. and Maki Maki, and a commercial bakery, Swiss Bakers.
“We have been as aggressive as can be in terms of bringing different types of opportunities into our spaces,” says University Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp. “We are quite pleased with what we’ve been able to achieve.”
Although Harvard is unable to comment on its leasing negotiations, Allston Work Team Co-Chair Bill Purcell says that the University has tried to find businesses that will reinvigorate the neighborhood.
“Throughout we have looked at the needs of the community and there’s no question that the community has been interested in immediate retail opportunities,” says Purcell.
“Activity inspires further activity, ideas inspire further ideas,” says Christine M. Heenan, vice president for public affairs and communications. “I’ve already seen that happen in the past six months.”
NOT THE RIGHT FIT?
But Harvard’s land banking remains one of the most pressing issues bolstering tensions between the University and Allston residents. Community members say that since Harvard began surreptitiously purchasing property under a subsidiary of a different name they have suffered the loss of retail outlets, such as Kmart and Office Max.