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A month of public political wrangling over Harvard’s latest attempt to buy a swath of Allston came to a head this weekend, when one state agency voted unanimously to take the heart of the property by “eminent domain”—only to have a state senator pledge to challenge their effort in the state legislature the next day.
Many of the state’s most powerful politicians have been protesting the sale ever since the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board voted to accept Harvard’s $75 million bid for the 91-acre parcel of land.
The sale’s opponents—including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Mass. Governor W. Mitt Romney—have consistently said they fear that Harvard’s ownership of the 91 acres could jeopardize the sprawling railyard situated on the land, which, they say, provides crucial rail access close to Boston’s port and is essential to the region’s economy.
Just under a week before the Turnpike Authority’s chair planned to officially sign the papers and hand over the deed to Harvard, on Thursday the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) informed the Turnpike of their intent to seize the land through “eminent domain,” a rarely-used government power to forcibly buy land deemed in the public interest.
The MBTA offered $33 million for the 47 acres of the parcel where the railyard is concentrated. MBTA officials currently use the railyards as a layover facility and say they hope to develop the site in the future.
But State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios ’90-’91, whose district includes the parcel, said yesterday that he planned to file legislation to block the MBTA from taking the 47 acres.
Barrios said he was “perplexed” that the MBTA would offer to pay several million for the land, despite the agency’s near bankruptcy.
“This has nothing to do with Harvard at all,” Barrios said of his planned legislation, “and everything to do with the Commonwealth’s fiscal crisis.”
Referencing a decades-old statute, Barrios said that the state transportation secretary already has the right to approve any developments that would affect railyards, making the MBTA’s attempt to forcibly buy the land unneccesary.
“What that means is, even if Harvard were to buy the land and buy [railyard owner] CSX’s lease, we would still have the ability to require Harvard to accommodate the commonwealth to provide for mass transit needs,” he said.
Such railway oversight was exercised frequently by former Transportation Secretary Frederick P. Salvucci, but has largely been ignored under the current administration, Barrios said.
Barrios, a Democrat who has been an outspoken opponent of the MBTA’s proposed subway fare hikes, said that the agency’s attempt to buy part of the contested land is “at best, confusing, at worst, Republican agencies in-fighting at the cost of taxpayers.”
“I’m a firm believer in letting the governor run his administration,” he said, “but not if its going to cost us $33 million to end a political squabble.”
But Barrios’s legislation will only become effective with approval from Governor Romney, who has backed the MBTA’s latest volley against the Turnpike, alongside his Transportation Secretary, Daniel Grabauskas.
‘’I fully expect at this point that 30 days from now, the MBTA will own the rail yard,’’ Grabauskas told the Globe on Saturday. He likened the Turnpike Authority to ‘’the drunken brother selling off the back 40 for a short-term fix, and we’re all going to suffer for it.’’
Derailing the Sale
The state’s opposition to the sale coincides with the Romney administration’s proposal to dismantle the Turnpike Authority and remove its chair, Matthew Amorello.
Since opposition to the sale began last month, Amorello and other Turnpike officials have said repeatedly that they will make a final decision on the land sale by this Friday, despite injunctions and oppositions.
The review board that’s consulting on the land’s sale also sent Amorello a letter on Thursday, strongly urging that the Turnpike Authority hold off on finalizing the deal for at least 120 days, in order to provide concerned parties additional time to analyze the environmental and economic impacts of selling the parcel.
The review board cited a report which called the railyard—known as Beacon Park—“the major freight transfer point beween rail and truck for the Boston region.”
Turnpike officials were unavailable for comment yesterday.
The Turnpike Authority’s response to the MBTA’s invocation of eminent domain—a letter hand-delivered to MBTA attorneys on Friday afternoon— stated that the Turnpike was “mystified by the MBTA’s action” especially since the University was prepared to “facilitate the continuation of commuter rail and freight services.”
“Harvard has made it clear that such concessions would be provided without any cost to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth,” the letter said, outlining the University’s most public promises about the land’s future to date.
Alan Stone, Harvard’s vice president for government, community and public affairs, said yesterday that the University is willing to go to the table with all interested parties.
“We’re aware in a general way in the MBTA’s interest in parts of the property,” Stone said. ‘’As we have said before, we’re fully prepared to sit down and discuss all issues of concern.’’
But Grabauskas told The Globe on Saturday that he was “astounded” that the University had ever made an offer to protect the railyards, especially after Harvard officials had recently told him that they had “no interest in reducing the value of the property” or limiting the University’s “flexibility” by promising to protect the yard.
The political chips have yet to fall, and it’s not yet clear what the impact on Harvard’s relations with Boston City Hall—or on the political careers of the myriad politicians involved—will be.
Although Barrios is a Harvard alum, for the past decade he has often and publicly taken stances against the University’s administration—both at community meetings on neighborhood development issues and in front of Mass. Hall during the PSLM sit-in.
Veteran Cambridge political pundit Glenn S. Koocher ’71 welcomed Barrios’ legislative attempt as the beginning of the end to a potentially long and combative process.
“Barrios is trying to provide clarity and resolve this quickly,” Koocher said yesterday. “When the boys at the state house won’t play nicely with each other about who controls what, someone has to come in and decide as to whether the MBTA actually has the authority to do any of this.”
Koocher added that Harvard would not necessarily be a bad neighbor to have around.
“As a developer, Harvard would be far more protective of the land than a commercial developer.”
—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.
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