Building in Allston

Harvard must remain committed to Allston in the upcoming capital campaign

When Harvard dramatically put off its planned giant construction project in Allston two years ago, many on campus and beyond wondered whether all of the hype and extraordinary circumstances would ever amount to anything. The past academic year has offered a partial answer to this question. Officially, Harvard’s administration remains committed to its second campus at Allston. The challenge facing the Harvard Allston Work Team, the body advising President Faust on Allston, has been compounded by the widespread perception that Harvard has treated Allston’s community poorly in the process.

In an effort to demonstrate that the 2008-2009 financial crisis has not irrevocably shut down one of the University’s most ambitious projects in some time, Harvard’s bigwigs have been forced to devote attention to a neighborhood in some places ravaged by aggressive acquisition tactics and large-scale, unfinished foundation work. Announcements such as the one by Harvard Business School earlier this spring of a planned Innovation Lab suggest that action to build at Allston will continue at a gradual level. While the Harvard Education Portal has already started to function and served the local community well, Allston’s signature, one billion dollar proposed Science Complex has yet to be started.

At this point, two developments look set to influence considerably the future of Allston. One should be the upcoming report from the Allston Work team on the future of Allston. Rather than just reporting its findings to the President’s office, the Work team—led by former Institute of Politics director Bill Purcell—should do what important administration communiqués and diktats often fail to do, and release its recommendation to the general public. In a case that involves such a large portion of a neighboring community—not to mention the broader network of Harvard’s students and faculty—Purcell and his team would do well to leave this sensitive issue open to suggestions and input.

To be fair, increasing attention does seem to be focused on how to placate Allston’s community. For instance, Harvard’s recent announcement of a seasonal ice-skating rink near the giant hole by Allston’s Western Avenue—left by initial and abandoned work on the Science Complex—indicates little else. In this case, Harvard stands the best chance of reaching an amicable and effective resolution with its neighbors in Allston by actively involving them in the kinds of projects they would like to see implemented. If Harvard’s physical presence in Alston is to be about dialogue and synergy between local residents and the University’s community, it makes sense to begin this relationship at the earliest possible point.

In the long-term, of course, Innovation Labs, skating rinks, and an Education Portal (i.e., a kindergarten) will unlikely meet the demands of either disgruntled Allston residents or Harvard’s own network of students, professors, and alumni. Despite the secretive nature of Harvard’s piecemeal acquisition of large chunks of Allston’s property over the past two decades, planners initially impressed all parties involved with the lavish conception of a second campus in the area. It is difficult to see how Harvard will ever walk away from Allston with its head held high without fulfilling in some large part this initial goal of constructing a major academic facility. Until then, property in Allston will likely remain un-built, and major lots empty or underdeveloped. So Harvard stands a good chance of rebuilding its relations with Allston by embarking on the initial goal of transforming the area into a major academic hub. The Allston Work Team should primarily view Allston not merely as a clean-up job but also as a major opportunity.

Here, the issue of money comes into play, and a second, important development becomes relevant to the discussion—namely,  the upcoming capital campaign. This plan, due to kick off officially a couple years from now, aims to raise a record amount of money to supplement Harvard’s endowment and fund major initiatives.

Earlier this year, this newspaper expressed its support for putting Allston at the fore of this landmark fundraising initiative, even above pressing House renewal plans. Given Harvard’s record of what has so far proved disruptive involvement in Allston—and its notable failure to carry out its much-vaunted construction—the Development Office will have to devote significant attention in marketing effectively the continuing challenge of this development. Although alumni and donors may react jadedly by this point to the sound of the Allston project, it is important not to prioritize reaching a record-breaking sum by publicizing the most attractive message over securing the funds necessary for our most important projects. For this reason, by this point, Allston’s regeneration ought to constitute a significant part of the capital campaign’s message. With full and transparent explanation, the kind facilitated by the releasing of concrete plans from the Allston Work team, donors can be encouraged to look at the long-term benefits of extending Harvard’s physical space and putting neighborhood relationships on a better footing for the future.

In the spirit of commitment to tough endeavors, Harvard can still emerge successful in Allston by completing the major project it has started. This, of course, remains the stance of Harvard’s administration, including President Faust. For this stance to be translated into realized action, however, more concrete plans need to be set out for what exactly Harvard plans to build in the space it owns in Allston. Merely thinking that we can sweep the issue under the carpet by giving a few sops to the community is not the best long-term approach. Indeed, the only way this venture will be a success for Harvard and for Allston will be for the University to fulfill its initial plans of building a major, “second” campus on the site, billion-dollar science complex and all. A flourishing academic center will do volumes for the community and the University’s own continuing problem of good, usable space. As we look forward to the capital campaign, this should be the focus of raising the vast amount of money still needed for the project.

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