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Boston, Mayor Resist Harvard's Land Bid

By Alex L. Pasternack, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s latest effort to expand its holdings of local real estate met resistance this week from Boston’s mayor and other influential officials, who say they want more time to review Harvard’s $75 million bid to buy a 91-acre parcel of North Allston from the cash-strapped Masschusetts Turnpike Authority.

The University was the only bidder on the bulk of the land, but local leaders say they want to put the brakes on the sale—which some say might endanger the area’s freight rail yards that currently sit on the property.

Earlier this week, a Turnpike Authority spokesperson said he expected the sale to be finalized by today.

“We still have to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, but Harvard came in as the highest bidder...we are awarding the land based on the highest bid price for it, so the land’s future is pretty clear,” Turnpike Authority spokesperson Sean O’Neil said on Tuesday.

But yesterday, a member of the Turnpike Authority’s board said that the sale would not be finalized until at least next week.

“As far as I know, its going to happen. We have our job to do,” said Authority board member Jordan Levy. “The highest legal bidder is getting my vote. That’s the oath I’ve taken.”

But several powerful local leaders—including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and several state authorities—have reportedly asked the Turnpike Authority to put off the sale.

“I have great concerns about this,” said State Senator Steve M. Tolman, one of several local politicians who have questioned the sale. “Why is this happening so fast?”

Some local politicians have also demanded the Turnpike Authority reconsider the sale of the only contested part of the 91 acres: a 1.4 acre section also bid on by Houghton Chemical, a business which partially resides on the land.

Senator Tolman said that Harvard’s voracity for land was excessive and threatened the survival of local businesses.

“There’s no way Houghton can compete for bidding on that property against an institution with a $20-billion endowment, who’s purchased every square inch of land that they could in the last couple of years,” Tolman said.

Harvard offered about $20 per square foot for most of the 91 acres, but for the contested 1.4-acre parcel made a separate offer—bidding about $80 per square foot—easily topping Houghton Chemical’s $500,000 bid.

Earlier this week, Harvard spokesperson Lauren Marshall said that Harvard had no intention to force Houghton off the land.

“We have no plans to change this property in the foreseeable future,” Marshall said on Wednesday. “This is a long-term investment and we are thinking about the needs of the University in the future.”

The debt-ridden Turnpike Authority announced the parcel’s auction in January after years of back-and-forth discussions on the potential for the land, which is split down the middle by turnpike roads and crisscrossed by CSX railway tracks. In 1997, the Turnpike sold a less-encumbered 47-acre piece of adjacent property to the University for $151 million.

But officials are reportedly concerned that the sale of the larger slice of land to Harvard could complicate access to or even spell the eventual end of the railway yard, which is the largest facility for rail freight in the Boston area and a crucial piece in the MBTA’s development of the commuter rail.

When the piece went up for sale in January, Harvard played down its interest in the property, noting that the land might be more suited to Boston University (B.U.). But B.U., which is in the midst of its own expansion project, placed no bid on the property.

The sale would increase Harvard’s land-holdings in Allston—where the University plans a future campus—by one-third.

Menino and Douglas Foy, the governor’s transportation secretary, have both contacted Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew Amorello, asking him to postpone a final vote on the sale until state and local officials have been consulted, according to The Boston Globe.

But the Turnpike officials have said they have no intent on delaying or cancelling the sale.

Authority board member Levy said he thought the leaders’ concerns were surprisingly timed because the deal has been on the horizon for years.

“I find this controversy surprising. This sale shouldn’t be shocking to anyone,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for better than two years now. Why suddenly is everyone so concerned?”

Levy said that worry about the future of the rail yard was unnecessary.

In January, a CSX spokesperson said that the company depended heavily on the site, and that they had no plans to leave the site in the near future.

Years ago, the Turnpike provided CSX, which owns the rail yards, with an easement which keeps them on the land indefinitely, no matter who the landlord is.

“All of these concerns are easily assured and I see no reason why we shouldn’t go forward,” Levy said.

Levy said he suspected that there were other unstated interests at stake in opposition to the land sale, including Governor W. Mitt Romney’s previously-stated desire to dissolve the Turnpike Authority.

“I don’t think this is anything about the railroad. Its about other utilization of that property, whether its by city interests or the governor’s interests in seeing that land, and the revenues of that land, go to other sources,” Levy said. “They don’t want to see to money come back into the Authority...when they’re trying to balance a budget thats 3 billion dollars out of whack.”

The revenue raised by the sale of the land will help pay for current projects like the Big Dig and a toll discount program, Turnpike officials have said.

“It would be wrong for us to hold on to a parcel that other people want to pay for and that does not serve the purpsoe of the Mass. Turnpike Authority,” Levy added. “That’s been the debate for two years and there’s been no objection to it so far.”

Nevertheless, Tolman said, the University will have much to prove to businesses, residents and area politicians as it inches and forges its way into the community.

“It would be my hope that if Harvard has in any intent to purchase that property that they pay close attention to Houghton Chemical’s needs,” he said. “If they intend to bully their way and adversely impact a business that’s been here 40 years, I have real concerns.”

Meanwhile, Levy said that he and the rest of the Authority’s board hope to approve the sale to Harvard next week.

—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.

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