Two years after the University secretly bought 52 acres of land across the river in Allston, outraging many residents, Harvard is beginning to develop plans for the new property. A physical planning committee is considering several uses for the land in the years and decades ahead; among their ideas is that the Allston property could be developed into a new "academic precinct" of the University, perhaps as a new home for one or more of Harvard's space-starved graduate schools.
Harvard has the resources to do virtually anything with the land it wants, and it's understandable that University planners are salivating over the property. Carving a new campus out of Allston's streets would be a tremendous undertaking, one that could benefit the city and would certainly benefit the University.
Harvard, however, must learn from its mistakes. The University should not develop the land the same way it bought it--without regard for the Allston community. No matter how attractive a new "academic precinct" might sound to University planners, convincing residents already leary of Harvard that it will be good for Allston might not be so easy.
To its credit, the University has tried to patch up relations with the city, donating land last year for an Allston branch library. More recently, the University has agreed to increase its payment in lieu of taxes to the city by $12 million. But the fact remains that by covering up its purchases, even in order to protect itself from inflated real estate prices, Harvard acquired its land in an underhanded manner, a move that will likely taint town-gown relations for years to come.
Harvard should take pains to listen to Allston residents, especially this early in the planning process. University expansion has always been a contentious issue, and there is probably no way that Harvard can make everyone in Allston happy. However, if residents have a say from the beginning, the likelihood that a mutually beneficial plan can be worked out will be much greater. Harvard is going to have to sell whatever plan it eventually comes up with to the Boston Redevelopment Authority anyway. The sooner the University starts bringing residents into the planning process the more likely it is to have their support when the time comes to seek approval.
We hope it can happen. A new campus across the river would be great for Harvard. And, arguably, the business it would attract would be good for Allston too. But in the end it may turn out that the people of Allston don't want a Harvard outpost plunked down in their midst. If so, there are far less obtrusive uses to which Harvard can put its land--storage space, office space, new labs--and any of these would be preferable to assuring decades of animosity by building a new campus in a community that doesn't want it.
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