After indefinitely halting ongoing construction in North Allston four years ago, Harvard seems to be making tentative moves forward with development plans for 1.4 million square feet of its property in Allston. Most recently, Harvard submitted a revised Institutional Master Plan for review to the Boston Redevelopment Authority including ambitious plans for the construction of a hotel, conference center, and new basketball stadium as well as renovations to the Stadium and graduate student housing. At the same time, Harvard presented a possible framework for a $13-15 million community benefits package to go along with the 10-year plan for development. This community benefits package, which is required to appear in some form in the final plan, is an exciting opportunity, but requires caution: Harvard and community members need to be thoughtful to ensure that the package really does sustainable good for the community.
In the past, Harvard’s attempts at development in Allston have, understandably, met with strong resistance from Allston and Brighton community members. While the University often proclaims that its development in Allston will benefit the Allston community, its actions have suggested that that has not always been its primary goal.
For example, when Harvard announced that it would build its Innovation Lab on Western Avenue in North Allston, it described that part of the iLab’s resources would be set aside for the use of local small businesses and nonprofits and that the i-Lab would include a coffee shop open to neighborhood residents. However, as we predicted two years ago, in practice, the i-Lab is far from useful to most Allston residents; the space caters almost exclusively to Harvard affiliates.
In another example, in 2007, Harvard included plans for a 3-acre park near 28 Travis Street as part of its Institutional Master Plan. Last year, though, Harvard proposed to build a shuttle facility, police training site, recycling center, and other facilities in the same space. Allston residents protested the negative impact of this development on the commercial and residential community nearby, but the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved most of the proposal this spring and Harvard went forward with its new plan.
We ask Harvard to truly consider the effects of its development on the Allston community and work to follow the intent, not just the letter, of its obligation to the Allston community. In the past, Harvard’s attempts at providing community benefits have included the Harvard-Allston Education Portal and the construction of a mini-golf course for the use of Allston community members. While education and entertainment are important, residents dealing with business closures, construction sites, and a rapidly changing neighborhood demographics deserve benefits related to housing, employment, and transportation. All decision-makers involved should listen carefully to the recommendations of the Harvard-Allston Task Force to ascertain which benefits will actually help the residents, small business owners, and workers of Allston in both the short term and long term.
Harvard’s track record with community-oriented development is not great. We are happy to see movement forward on construction in Allston and excited about the prospects afforded by the possible $13-15 million community benefits package. However, it would be a shame if Harvard simply used these millions to construct resources that were useful only to Harvard affiliates.