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Harvard Eyes Allston Complex

University may pay to renovate Cambridge apartments in exchange for land

By Alex L. Pasternack and Jessica R. Rubin-wills, Crimson Staff Writerss

The University wants something from the residents of the Charlesview Apartments, and it may just be willing to trade a shiny, new building for it.

Since last April, Harvard negotiators have traversed the Charles at least six times to discuss the possibility of obtaining Charlesview’s centrally located land in exchange for a new building in the vicinity that could be completed within three to five years.

A meager collection of low-rise, low-income apartments constructed in the late 1960s at the corner of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue, Charlesview sits at the edge of Harvard’s athletic fields, and directly at the center of Harvard’s future Allston campus.

“I can’t see Harvard not doing everything in their power to get this piece of property,” said Debbie Giovanditto, chair of the tenants’ association.

For residents of Charlesview, the prospect of Harvard taking their homes is actually exciting. Such a deal would spell the end to the flooded hallways and renovation-driven rent increases of this unsightly concrete building that is literally sinking into the ground.

With or without the Harvard deal, the apartment complex will likely need a major renovation within the next five years.

In exchange, Harvard would need to construct a new building nearby that would provide housing for the existing 213 families, with the same ratio of affordable and subsidized apartments along with new amenities like washer and dryer hookups in each unit.

“I don’t think the residents should be shy about what they want,” said Paul Berkeley, the president of the Allston Civic Association and a member of the city’s Allston-Harvard Task Force.

“Charlesview doesn’t have to accept anything, and nobody can force them off that land,” he added. “The people from Charlesview have an opportunity to improve their situation, but shouldn’t consider it if the offer isn’t to their liking.”

The president of the building’s board approached Harvard last January, prompting discussions between representatives of the University and The Community Builders, a non-profit development firm representing Charlesview.

Though negotiations are reportedly still in their early stages, the Charlesview board created a new advisory panel this month, made up of residents, board members and technical advisers, to gather tenants’ desires as the talks continue.

“First thing we want to do is to see if there’s something to talk about with Harvard,” said Martin Cohn, a spokesperson for Charlesview who has attended meetings with the University. “If there’s a suitable property, and we’ve come to some understanding, then other players come into it.”

After Harvard and Charlesview come to an agreement, any plan to move the building will face a challenging approval process, overseen by the mayor, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which finances low-income tenants through the government’s “Section 8” housing subsidies.

Finding a site that suits the needs of residents, the community and government agencies could present a formidable challenge to the University.

Already, says Cohn, Harvard’s developers are scouting the University’s sprawling but mostly encumbered properties to find a locale that pleases Charlesview tenants.

“We’ve looked at some locations,” said Cohn, “but the nature of a discussion means that there’s give and take on both sides. The search continues, and we remain optimistic.”

In addition to the hurdle of the building restrictions that would be imposed by local and federal agencies, the residents, led by Giovanditto, are calling for a locale which has easy access to public transportation and is near stores and the library.

“A brand new complex from Harvard sounds pretty good,” said Giovanditto, “but it’s going to depend on location, location, location.”

“If we’re put somewhere on Soldier’s Field Road where it’s three blocks to get to a bus, and it’s hard for folks to get to a supermarket, then it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Other demands the residents are seeking include a greenhouse, an elderly common room, larger living rooms and central air conditioning, according to Giovanditto, who surveyed the residents in October. She has prepared a Powerpoint presentation that highlights residents’ requests, which she plans to present at the next advisory board meeting in early March.

Giovanditto said that residents are much more confident in the negotiations process than they were this time last year, when she founded the tenants’ association out of concerns that residents’ interests were not being represented.

“People were more upset about not having a place to live,” she said. “Rumor going around was that ‘Oh my God they’re going to buy it and we’re going to be on the street.’”

“A lot of the stress [disappeared] once it was made public,” she added.

Ava Chan, a member of the Allston Community Development Corporation, who has been helping the tenants organize, calls the process itself as a sign of goodwill and progress in a community that has long been suspicious of the University.

“It seems to me that the tenants are really happy to be working with Harvard on this,” she said. “The fact that the residents and the owners and Harvard are discussing this can only be a constructive thing.”

While details of a possible deal are still hazy, some say that Charlesview hopes to retain ownership of their current property for the time being even if the building is relocated—lending, not giving their land to Harvard.

Cohn said that both sides could reach an agreement by the end of the year.

Harvard has a keen interest in the property.

Charlesview’s location in the heart of North Allston would provide the University with an opportunity to develop a center to the new campus and would revitalize an area currently defined by a Dunkin’ Donuts, a gas station and autobody repair shops.

University spokesperson Lauren M. Marshall said Harvard hopes to reach an agreement “that maintains affordable housing for the Charlesview community in Allston-Brighton, helps to preserve affordable housing alternatives in Boston and supports Harvard’s future.”

Giovanditto said she is optimistic about a deal with Harvard and that many other residents would also be willing to move if it meant better facilities.

“You give anyone some time to accept change, and as long as change is for the better, people are happy with that,” she said, before hinting at another demand: “As long as they wouldn’t have to pay money for movers.”

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

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at rubinwil@fas.harvard.edu.

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