In 1997, Harvard revealed that it had secretly purchased over 50 acres of land in Allston, the Boston neighborhood right across the river from Harvard’s Cambridge campus. In an effort to appease angry residents, who felt that Harvard had deceived them and feared what would happen to the neighborhood with Harvard as landlord, the University promised that it would use the purchased land to stimulate business in Allston—primarily by building a large Science Complex on Western Avenue. Unfortunately, since then, Harvard’s interactions with Allston have demonstrated that it does not respect its neighbors and its neighborhood.
Harvard broke ground on the Science Complex in 2008 while pledging to give back to the Allston community by turning Allston’s Barry’s Corner into a vibrant neighborhood. Unfortunately, when Harvard’s endowment plummeted during the financial crisis, the University decided to halt construction on the Science Complex indefinitely. The building’s foundation has sat basically untouched in the middle of Allston since 2009. A post in Boston’s community news site Universal Hub ironically notes, “Harvard is listening to residents not looking forward to a decade of living near a crater” by proposing that attractive bushes be planted around the site. To further compensate Allston residents for the revenue lost by their community, Harvard has kindly erected a miniature golf course and provided rat-proof trash cans to Allston residents. How generous.
Of course, Harvard hasn’t done everything wrong. Plans to relocate the Charlesview housing complex have gone ahead bumpily, but steadily. Allston residents expressed optimism that the old Charlesview site would feature an arts and cultural center to benefit both Harvard affiliates and Bostonians. And this year, Harvard finally announced plans to restart development of what will now be a “Health and Life Science Center” in 2014. After pressure from the Harvard-Allston Task Force and Harvard community members, it has also released further plans for development in Allston. Most recently, Harvard has proposed updating its Institutional Master Plan to build a new basketball stadium in Allston, among other things.
But between a meeting last month and a document sent to the Boston Redevelopment Authority last week, Allston residents involved in the Harvard Allston Task Force seem to have very few positive comments about Harvard’s new plan. Community members expressed frustration about Harvard stalling economic activity in Allston, as the University pushed out businesses like K-Mart but has failed to follow through with plans to liven Barry’s Corner. In fact, Harvard’s new plan would turn the space that currently houses the Charlesview Apartments into a parking lot. To this, the Harvard-Allston Task Force responded, “A large surface parking lot in this strategic and highly-visible site is completely contrary to our vision for North Allston. We strongly oppose Barry’s Corner being the backside of Harvard’s campus where undesirable uses are dumped.”
Sadly, conflict with its neighbors is nothing new for Harvard. Less than 50 years ago, a group of hundreds of students and community members protested Harvard’s systematic eviction of residents from low-income housing along the Charles River to make room for Mather House and Peabody Terrace. Members of community organization Riverside Planning Group as well as Harvard and Radcliffe feminists and activists attempted everything from interrupting Commencement in 1970 to occupying a building on Memorial Drive in 1971 to demand low-income housing and a women’s center.
Today, as 50 years ago, there is a fundamental disconnect between the desires of Harvard and the needs of Boston and Cambridge residents whose lives and communities are affected by Harvard. Harvard has broad long-terms plans for expanding graduate school programs and scientific research and acquires land with these 50-year or 100-year plans in mind. Meanwhile, our University seems to view its neighbors as simply a temporary nuisance to be appeased with promises and inexpensive gifts. Harvard should be interacting with its neighbors by constructing projects like the Allston Education Portal proactively, not simply in response to community outcry about mistreatment.
In the past 20 years, Harvard has repeatedly neglected the short- and long-term needs of Allston residents in favor of pursuing its own grand plans for expansion. Unfortunately, unfulfilled promises of community development cannot rectify a decision-making model that does not account for the needs of community residents. As Allston residents and Harvard administrators wait for the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s response to Harvard’s proposed changes to its Institutional Master Plan, they would do well to remember lessons from decades ago: Harvard’s plans for expansion are not and will never be sustainable as long as the University continues to exert its will on Cambridge and Boston without respecting the needs of working- and middle-class community residents.
Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.