Harvard’s relationship with Allston has long been tumultuous. From its anonymous purchases of land across the Charles River nearly 20 years ago to its abrupt decision to halt construction during the financial crisis, the University has often failed to engender trust with the neighborhood and its residents.
In recent years, however, the relationship has improved. In conjunction with the University’s own projects in Allston, Harvard has embarked upon various initiatives beneficial to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, too much of the Harvard-Allston relationship is still characterized by a lack of communication. In particular, criticism of the accessibility of Harvard-Allston Task Force meetings—the forum at which residents can express reservations and learn about Harvard’s projects—has recently escalated.
Harvard should not shoulder all the blame: The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the agency under whose auspices the task force operates, also has a role to play in alleviating residents’ concerns. Harvard, nevertheless, should do what it can to ensure that all Allstonians have access to the meetings and can help shape the neighborhood’s future.
One way in which Harvard should increase accessibility to the task force meetings is by ensuring that they actually take place in residential sections of Allston. Over the past two years, most meetings have occurred at the Fiorentino Community Center in Brighton and Harvard Business School, neither of which are convenient for those living in Allston’s residential areas.
A better alternative exists: Residents would likely prefer the Honan-Allston library, currently the site of some meetings. Though the library's early closing has imposed artificial limits on the length and scope of meetings, Harvard could step in and pay the cost of keeping the library open. This would be both a gesture of good faith and allow more residents to take part in these critical discussions.
Another means through which Harvard and the BRA could support community access to task force meetings would be by providing interpreters for non-English speaking Allston residents. From 2006 to 2007, the BRA provided interpreters at meetings, but cited under-utilization in ending the initiative.
Beyond questions of location and language, tailoring outreach efforts to reach more residents and ensuring that meeting times accommodate working-class residents would help ensure that the task force’s sessions include a representative cross-section of the neighborhood.
In addition, residents too often report feeling that Harvard’s responses to their concerns are perfunctory, especially since more time at meetings is devoted to presentations about Harvard’s plans than to community feedback. Not all complaints merit endless discussion, but the University must remain attentive to feedback and work to dispel notions that task force meetings are a public relations exercise.
Ultimately, none of these criticisms should mask the serious efforts that Harvard has made to improve its relationship with Allston over the past several years. The current construction represents an exciting moment for the University, the neighborhood, and the city, and all sides have a role in shaping this opportunity. Through increasing the accessibility of its Allston Task Force meetings, Harvard can play its part.