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Purchase Damages Community Relations

Harvard Works to Mend Fences With Brighton After Buying Western Ave. Building

By Joseph R. Palmore

If the University's plans to buy the building at 230 Western Ave. have proved controversial, one would not know it by talking to those who live around it, many of whom say they are more dissatisfied with the site's current owner.

"We want Harvard. We do want Harvard," said one of the immediate neighbors of the Brighton office building at a Harvard-sponsored forum this week.

At the forum, the site's neighbors expressed more concern with encouraging the building's soon-to-be owners to change the unsightly paint color and stop snow plows from driving down their streets early in the morning than with discussion of the role of Harvard in their community.

But others in Allston-Brighton, backed by some Boston city officials, have lambasted Harvard for the building purchase, charging that it constituted a major breach of trust on the part of the University.

"The building is not really the issue. I'm talking about process," says Ray Mellone, who chairs Allston-Brighton's Planning and Zoning Advisory Committee (PZAC), which has led the opposition to Harvard's purchase.

At stake is the master plan process, by which large institutions in Boston have been required to chart their plans for growth and development over the next five years. The master plans are crucial to Boston's efforts to overhaul zoning codes--which have not been reformed in 25 years--and protect fragile neighborhoods from explosive institutional growth at their fringes.

Harvard did not include its plans to buy 230 Western Ave. in its master plan and did not mention the site during the two years of discussion leading to the master plan's approval in April.

The University has since contended that the master plan only covered on-campus development and has pointed to its policy of keeping real estate transactions secret until they are completed.

But PZAC members have said that implicit in the master plan process was a discussion of off-campus building purchases and have accused the University of exploiting a loop-hole.

The master plan process is a particularly sensitive one for Allston-Brighton, which is home to parts of Harvard, Boston College and Boston University.

"Let's face it, this used to be a community of families," says PZAC member Mary Talty. "Since the institutions are coming in, we're getting less and less families and more and more transients."

Harvard emerged from its two-year master planning process--which culminated this spring when the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) approved the University's plan--as something of a model for other institutions, according to PZAC members.

Allston-Brighton, across the Charles River from Cambridge and home to the Business School and the athletic facilities, had for a long time felt like the "back-door" to Harvard, to use the phrase of resident Gary McIsaac, but the indepth discussion involved in coming up with a master plan was seen as a means of changing that.

The University agreed to scale back plans for a new Office for Information Technology building at the corner of Western Ave. and North Harvard St. and even supplied an optional 10-year development projection.

And it was the perceived violaton of that high level of trust built up between University officials and community members, Allston-Brighton residents say, that spurred the intense reaction against Harvard when it announced the intended purchase of 230 Western Ave. last month.

"We and others thought the University had broken the stereotype of institutional disregard for the interests of the local community after it successfully completed a five-year master plan," reads part of a staff editorial in yesterday's Allston-Brighton Citizen. "But then reality sank in."

While the University continues to wrangle with Boston officials over the purchase--the latest dispute being over zoning--Harvard officials and community residents have begun the process of rebuilding shattered relations.

Harvard has indicated that it may file an amendment to its master plan to accommodate the building purchase and administration officials have said they want to set up a mechanism with the community to avoid a repeat of this summer's dispute.

Specifically, University officials say they might submit to some type of boundary arrangement, which would prevent the University from buying land in certain parts of Allston-Brighton.

Boston College this week rejected such a pact, calling it unnecessarily restrictive, but Harvard and community officials say it may be one way of preventing future misunderstandings over the propriety of University purchases, and putting Harvard back in good standing with Allston-Brighton.

"Everyone was hailing [Harvard's master plan] as a model plan--a process working the way it's supposed to work," says Marilyn Lyng O'Connell, Harvard's co-director for community relations. "I think in the end history will still record it that way."

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