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Before a crowd of Boston and Harvard officials gathered in the newly-constructed Spangler center at the Business School in March, Dean Kim B. Clark ’74 turned and pointed out the window to Allston.
“All you see is a parking lot,” he told the crowd of 400, “and if you look further, you’ll see a trailer truck depot. But that is not the future. This building is symbolic because it faces Boston. It’s the first building on this campus to do that and we did it on purpose. We wanted to signal the future of this school and the future of this University.”
The land, just across the Charles from Harvard College’s river houses, wasn’t much to look at—a parking lot with some sparse shrubs, a busy roadway of squat industrial buildings, and beyond, a railway lined with low warehouses and resting trailers.
Left with nowhere else to grow in Cambridge, Harvard over the past thirteen years bought one hundred acres of this land in Allston beside the river—three times the area of the current business school campus—bringing its total Allston holdings to 271 acres. It has 220 in Cambridge.
Over the next century Harvard will make massive moves across the river. Harvard planners have identified enough space for the relocation of several graduate schools, the construction of graduate student dorms, a new museum and administrative offices, all blended into a new campus along the Charles, with the road running through its center remade into a commercial boulevard, a front door from Cambridge into the new campus.
But for now, that campus is a paper dream, conceived by a University-wide Physical Planning Committee charged with the task of imagining the future of this new land.
To get there, Harvard must face the reality outside Clark’s window: 48 acres of land, some tied up in sixty year leases, split by a railway branch with permanent rights-of-way, on soil that will require environmental cleanup after a century of industrial use.
But with a quarter of a billion dollars spent so far, and another half billion budgeted for the next five years, and with an incoming president set to move the project from paper to concrete, Harvard’s future in Allston is certain, though the shape and time it will take are anything but.
Land Fit to Build On
Buying the land was the first step on the road to Allston. Now, the university must fashion a stretch of industrial land into a pollution-free plot ready for the foundations of a future campus.
In order to do that, Harvard must first contend with current tenants occupying the land under long-term lease. The Public Broadcasting Company WGBH sits in four buildings along Western Avenue with a lease until 2044. The Genzyme Corporation owns a pharmaceutical production plant beside the Charles on a lease until 2057, and CSX transportation owns railroad rights of way, known as easements, through the center of the property in perpetuity.
Of the three, only WGBH has plans to move. The broadcasting company has leased its main facility from Harvard since the 1960s, and now rents space in three other buildings Harvard purchased in the 1990s. The station plans to gather itself into one building in the next several years, possibly on land it recently bought in Brighton, according to Jeanne M. Hopkins, WGBH Vice President of Communications.
The other tenants, however, are more firmly planted. Henry J. Fitzgerald, Vice President of Engineering and Facility Development for Genzymre, says, “we have no exit strategy,” from the Allston site, which Genzyme constructed for $112 million in the early 1990s, and that the company plans to stay until 2057 as long as the facility stays viable.
CSX and Harvard are in contact, but no offers made, according to CSX spokesperson Robert Sullivan.
“I wouldn’t even call them talks,” he says. “We have a very active rail business through the region and the plan now is to remain as a tenant there and keep doing our business.”
The CSX easements have long been the thorn in the side of potential Allston developers. The presence of the railroad thwarted Genzyme’s plans in the early 1990s to expand across the site Harvard now hopes to develop.
“We could never get anything by that railroad. No luck whatsoever,” Fitzgerald says. “In fairness to the railroad, it’s not something you can easily pick up and move.”
Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, in his annual letter to the faculty, said Harvard plans to reroute those easements—a costly, but not impossible move according to Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) Deputy Director of Real Estate Bill Tuttle.
“Any right in property can get purchased. Easements get bought out all the time,” he says.
Over the next several years, Harvard will be buying out leases and financially coaxing tenants to relocate to other Harvard property.
The acquisition this June of the Arsenal on the Charles, a Watertown business complex, will serve as “swing space”—a place to relocate businesses and house Harvard users in transition for the move to Allston, according to Sally H. Zeckhauser, Harvard’s vice-president for administration.
Even with the land consolidated and the leases bought out, Harvard must undo the environmental damage to the site from two-hundred years of industrial use, including Naptha manufacture. Currently, both the extent of the damage and the cost of correction are unknown to the University.
The cost for the preparation of the land is not known, but the Central Administration has established a half-billion dollar infrastructure fund to cover the costs over the next five years.
The Central Administration estimated that at least $500 million would be needed for the project—a sum that is far too large to be sustained by its current budget. In an unprecedented step, the central administration will tax the endowments of Harvard’s nine schools directly, taking one half of one percent of each school’s endowment over the next five years to prepare the site.
The funds will be governed by a new infrastructure committee comprised of Harvard Corporation and Central Administration members as well as members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—a concession to FAS concerns that despite paying nearly forty percent of the total fund, they would not have any more sway in the decision-making process than those schools that were paying less.
As the most well-endowed faculty the FAS suffers disproportionately from a direct tax on endowments compared to the Business school, which takes revenue from tuition donations and consulting.
Nonetheless, FAS has softened its previously contentious stance on the funding because the FAS will benefit as other schools move to Allston and it fills the space they leave. The Central Administration calmed FAS fears that such a funding program would continue indefinitely, promising to reexamine the plan after five years.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority
Harvard agreed last February to design all expansion plans co-operatively with a community planning group and will underwrite the costs for the urban planning consultant who design the North Allston development plans.
The winning bid for consulting the Allston development went to Goody, Clancy and Associates, which was also responsible for the Charles River Basin project. Harvard will cover the planning costs: $200,000 over eighteen months. The bid award hasn’t yet been announced publicly.
“The goal at the end of those eighteen months is a conceptual layout of the new area,” says Director of Community Relations Kevin A. McCluskey ’76.
Goody-Clancy’s bid proposal identifies the main issues in Allston development. It centers around the transformation of Western Avenue, the road between HBS and the proposed academic campus, into a “main street” commercial boulevard for Allston and “a front door to the new Harvard campus.”
David Dixon, the principal consultant for Goody-Clancy, warns that the proposal may change drastically by the end of the process
“We can look at different areas and say ‘this area will be graduate student housing, this area will be academic buildings, this area will be commercial, this area museums, and this area community housing,” McCluskey says.
The greening of Western Ave. began this April with the construction of One Western Ave, an HBS housing project beside the river on the corner of Western Avenue, land Harvard held before the new purchases.
“The question is how it all fits to create a new sense of community,” McCluskey says.
Allston residents developed the neighborhood’s stringent approval measures in the late eighties, and trust they will keep Harvard at bay.
“Harvard’s the eight-hundred-pound gorilla. I know that,” says Chair of the Allston Community Task Force Ray Mellone. “I’m not afraid of anybody talking about concepts, anybody talking about ideas. Harvard may be developing a lot of plans with their school of architecture. It’s their money, it’s their university, it’s their land. But there’s no way anything’s going to be built without going through us.”
No Harvard plan will pass without measures taken for community housing, relieving worries about Harvard driving out the old neighbors with a newly gentrified strip, and Mellone says the community is at work on housing plans with rent controls tied to cost of living increases.
“We want to keep it affordable so that our sons and daughters can live here,” he says.
The Planning Process
Within Harvard, a group called the Physical Planning Committee fits the many proposed Allston uses into a broad, conceptual scheme for the land.
Comprised of senior administrators and faculty from across the University, the group was created in 1997 and reports to the central administration, the President and Provost.
The committee’s speculations must stay vague until President Summers takes office this fall.
“With a new president coming in who will take control of this process, and with no clear direction from the academic side, we really can’t say what the land will look like,” Director of Harvard Planning and Real Estate (HPRE) Kathy Spiegelman says.
But that hasn’t stopped them from thinking about it, and the Committee has looked at everything from a Harvard Square on Allston to avant-garde architecture.
They hired Rem Koolhaas, a renowned Professor at the design school in vogue for his giant displays of odd geometry, for a six-month conceptual study of the land, which concluded last May but proved too experimental.
“We hired him to do something very outlandish, not really considering the practical needs or the budget. It was a very smart, very creative guy imagining what we could do with this community,” Spiegelman says.
Koolhaas’s plans have sparked some creative thinking for the new land.
“Instead of recreating what we have in Cambridge, we may come up with a whole new concept,” Spiegelman says. “We’re not just talking about 50 foot buildings around grassy quadrangles.”
“The scale of the properties in Allston creates very different possibilities,” says Mary H. Power, senior director of community relations for Harvard. “We could create meadows on the land, we could recreate the fens.”
The Harvard planners stress that nothing is definite, and that any expansion in Allston will be long and gradual.
“Even if we spent all the money now, and got the land, we’d be back at this question of who will go.” Spiegelman says.
Moving On Down
Little doubt remains about the general use of the land: graduate student housing, community housing, a new academic precinct and new commercial spaces, and likely a new museum. The question now is who will go.
Only the FAS had been deemed unmovable—Rudenstine called any such action inconceivable at a faculty meeting this spring.
But Spiegelman says that even FAS science facilities could move across the River.
“I don’t mean to contradict the president, but that is his vision at the close of his term. In the sciences particularly, a lot of space is needed, and that may mean moving to a location away from the Cambridge campus,” Spiegelman says.
The Education School is discussed most frequently as a candidate to move, because it, like the Kennedy school, has no edges on which it might expand.
The Education and Kennedy schools have resorted to renting space around Harvard square to house their growing program, but can only accommodate expansion up to a point, according to Joel C. Monell, Dean of the Education School.
“It’s not that we’ve offered to move, or been approached as a candidate, it’s just that we’re landlocked, and there’s a limit on expansion. That’s why it often comes to people’s lips that the Education School is the top candidate,” Monell says.
Grogan mentioned the possibility that in the long term, a new professional campus in Allston could bring together the Business School, the Law School, the Education School and the Kennedy School to accommodate the recent push for interfaculty initiatives.
The law school has been the most vocal about its reluctance to leave its campus in the North Yard. The faculty resolved last year to stay put, and is currently working on a long-range plan for expansion within Cambridge.
“People can’t imagine being away from the heart of things,” Grogan says, gesturing out his Mass Hall window at Harvard Yard. “They’re tethered to the Yard.”
As the space squeeze threatens expansion plans, Grogan says, schools will be more receptive to a transplant.
“You can go to the law school and say, ‘you’re hemmed in. We’ll give you all the space you need plus 50 percent to grow,’” he says.
Knowles and the Peabody Museum have been stumping for a new public museum in Allston that would free up space in the North Yard for FAS expansion, making popular exhibits like the glass flowers more accessible to tourists, and creating modern facilities to properly store the collections.
The plans for Allston began in the late 1980s under president Derek Bok, when Harvard quietly began to buy up Allston land surrounding the HBS campus.
“There was no place left to expand in Cambridge,” Spiegelman says.
HPRE currently estimates that in fifteen years, Harvard will exhaust all potential to grow in Cambridge.
“You’re president in the late 1980s, and if you start thinking about 2020 then buying the Allston land starts to make a lot of sense,” McCluskey says.
From 1988 to 1994, Harvard hired a third party, Beal Properties, to purchase Allston land as it became available, acquiring 52 acres in 14 parcels scattered throughout the area around HBS for $88 million, and became the unknown landlord of a Star Market, a Honda Dealership, a Conrail warehouse, and row of auto repair shops on Windom Street.
Harvard’s purchases became public in June 1997, and drew outrage from the city and the community that they were made in secret. Mayor Menino said the purchases showed the University’s “arrogance,” and community relations with Boston plummeted.
According to Mellone, a 1997 incident led Harvard to disclose.
Mellone approached McCluskey about the property across the street from HBS.
“We had this world-class campus on one side of the street, and the other side looked like hell,” Mellone says.
He asked McCluskey for Harvard’s help to encourage the owners across the street to develop their property. McCluskey went ahead, not knowing that the owner across the street was none other than Harvard.
“Harvard had to make a public announcement because they were embarrassed. They couldn’t keep up the charade,” Mellone says.
The University admitted to the press, through McCluskey, that the purchases were a breach of trust, and President Neil Rudenstine promised never to purchase land secretly again.
Allston relations were quickly salvaged over the next two years, as Harvard hired Paul S. Grogan as Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs. Grogan came from Boston City Hall and is a longtime friend of Menino.
“Paul [Grogan]’s arrival was key to all this. His strong relationship with Menino has been very helpful,” McCluskey says.
Emphasizing its power to develop the neighborhood, the University recast the public relations mess as an opportunity for Allston to clean up the industrial plots that Mellone says “have always been a blight on this community.”
“It’s to our advantage to have somebody with deep pockets owning the worst property in the neighborhood. It makes it easier to deal with and develop,” he says.
Harvard began to woo its new neighbors, donating land for an Allston Branch of the Boston Public Library and revitalizing in the Star Market Shopping Center.
Then, in a 1999 windfall for the University, the MTA, strapped to pay for the Big Dig, put 48 acres of Allston land beside HBS up at a blind auction, which Harvard snatched easily with a $151 million bid. The closest competitor was Genzyme, which offered 26 million for its property and an adjoining parcel.
Harvard never had a set plan to acquire the whole hundred acres when it began buying Allston under Bok, McCluskey said, but the University anticipated a future purchase of the MTA land.
“We bought the doughnut and waited for the hole,” Spiegelman says.
Harvard continued to pour money into the community, investing $20 million in a 20-year affordable housing program, its first major gift to benefit both Boston and Cambridge, and then another 5 million in Boston for an after-school program. In the process, the university drew fire from Cambridge city officials for switching sides to Boston.
Grogan told the Crimson at the time that Harvard’s generosity was part strategy.
“There’s an element of altruism, but I don’t mind admitting that it’s very much in Harvard’s institutional self-interest to be doing things like this, because there’s a very direct connection between the health of the University and the condition of our cities, ” he said.
Harvard faces decades of compromise and enormous expense in Allston, but with big plans and nowhere to put them, Clark’s forecast of a future built over parking lots and truck depots is almost certain.
“Something magnificent will be created over there,” Grogan says. “It’s a city-shaping opportunity.”
—Staff writer Matthew F. Quirk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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