New Businesses in Allston Divide Residents

In the past year, Western Ave. has witnessed a flurry of activity as new small businesses have sprung up one by one in vacant buildings owned by Harvard University. But some Allston residents are not satisfied with these new developments.

Members of the Harvard Allston Task Force—a group of neighborhood residents selected by the City of Boston to give Harvard feedback on its construction projects—expressed divided opinions on the University’s new tenants. Some members said the businesses represent a positive step forward in the University’s tumultuous history of development in the community.

Paul Berkeley, who is also president of the Allston Civic Association, said that the new businesses have spruced up Western Ave. significantly.

“It’s nice to have Harvard using the properties and buildings that they own, the community certainly welcomes it and needs it,” Berkeley said.

Berkeley added that he is excited that Harvard has found occupants for its empty and unused property.

“I think ultimately Harvard has a responsibility for utilizing their facilities and land that they’ve purchased, and it is encouraging that they are making an effort now to utilize it,” Berkeley said.

In a 2005 planning document, Harvard said it would create a “main street” environment on Western Ave. However, this vision was put on hold when the University halted its Allston construction during the financial crisis. The University had allowed many of its leases to expire, leaving a significant portion of its real estate vacant.

Allston resident Rita M. DiGesse said that the new businesses have been “welcomed into the community with open arms.”

“I don’t use all of the businesses, but I think we can all agree that these businesses are better than the empty buildings that were there before,” she said.

But other Task Force members said that the new businesses do not align with the “main street” concept that Harvard had envisioned.

Allston resident Harry E. Mattison said that Harvard’s new tenants, who range from restaurateurs to wholesale retailers, do not interface enough with the community.

“A lot of these businesses are not very interactive,” Mattison said. “Sure, there is a business, but they’re not enlivening the community. They’re not creating the main-street Harvard promised.”

Brent Whelan ’73 worried that this new activity, which he viewed as small-scale development, will disincentivize the University from engaging in broader planning efforts.

“The big picture here is that Harvard is trying to collect rents on properties that are here and there,” Whelan said. “But [Harvard] is still turning its back on anything like a comprehensive planning process based on signals that it was getting from the community.”

Despite some residents’ dissatisfaction with the University’s new leaseholders, a Harvard spokesperson said that the University is mindful of the Allston community when considering potential leases.

“Harvard has worked hard to attract businesses that serve the community,” University spokesperson Lauren M. Marshall wrote in an email. “These new businesses and non-profits bring products, services and jobs to the community and are part of the University’s ongoing efforts to support the vibrancy of Allston through leasing, greening and property stewardship.”

The University has issued 18 leases on its Allston property since 2010.

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

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