Harvard Eyes Allston Complex

University may pay to renovate Cambridge apartments in exchange for land

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.