On a cold, rainy Friday in December 2009, University President Drew G. Faust left Harvard Yard for an important meeting about Harvard’s Allston development plans. While the subject of the meeting was not unique, the meeting’s location was. Faust headed to 102 Chesterfield Street, a humble, 1,700 square foot home in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, to meet Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino not at City Hall or Parkman House, the city’s official mayorial residence, but in his private home.
The house call—hardly the standard for University-city relations—was emblematic of a relationship that, despite rocky beginnings in the early 1990s, has become more positive and productive under the leadership of Faust and former University President Lawrence H. Summers.
In January 2014 Menino will step down from the Boston mayorship, a post he has held since 1993. The city’s longest-serving mayor, Menino has collaborated with Harvard through four serving presidents, land purchases in Allston, and the rise of online education. The relationship is an important one for both parties: for Harvard in its development aspirations, and for Boston in enhancing the City’s educational programming, both in public schools and online.
When Menino was elected mayor from his prior post of City Councillor in 1993, Harvard was discreetly preparing to make a major expansion across the Charles River. In a program launched by past University President Derek C. Bok in 1988, Harvard was stealthily buying up parcels of the Allston-Brighton neighborhood near Harvard Business School and the University’s athletic facilities. To avoid restrictions on large sales of land, the University worked through a Boston real estate firm, conducting the purchases in 14 separate installments. The last transaction came in 1994, only a few months after Menino was elected.
After concealing the purchases for years, Harvard announced in June 1997 that the University had successfully acquired 52.6 acres of land in Allston and was looking to begin the process of developing those holdings. That month, at an emotionally charged meeting in Allston, residents took Harvard to task for the land grab. One Allston resident asked if Harvard had a conscience, while another accused the University of operating secretly and then doing “ex post facto damage control.”
“I think everybody [knew] that Harvard’s first priority [was] Harvard,” said Warren E. Tolman, a state senator who represented Allston in 1997. “People in the neighborhood had their own long-term plans for their little plot of land, and they wanted to know what was going to happen...There were a lot of people who were upset.”
The fervor spread quickly. Menino remembers being emphatic during a press tour, claiming that Harvard should have worked with the city instead of buying the land covertly.
“I did a press event in front of an auto-body shop [in Allston],” Menino recalled in an interview with The Crimson. “I said, ‘Harvard will not take our property without being involved with the city.’”
In a letter to then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine, who had replaced Bok in 1991, Menino took an even sharper tone, writing that Harvard’s actions represented “the highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.”
The partnership between the mayor and the University had been compromised.
REPAIRING A DAMAGED RELATIONSHIP
Harvard’s expansion efforts came at the expense of the mayor’s trust.
Soon after the secret purchases were announced in June 1997, Rudenstine launched a damage-control operation. But despite a gift of land for the construction of the Allston-Brighton Library, and a $10 million pledge to help fund low-cost housing loans in Boston and Cambridge, the bad feelings lingered. When Rudenstine left the Harvard presidency in 2001, the relationship was destroyed.
“There was no relationship at that time,” said Menino of the final years of Rudenstine’s tenure. “Harvard thought that they were it, that they didn’t have to worry about anybody else but themselves, but then they ran into all kinds of issues.”
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