The Promises of Harvard’s Growth in Allston

Peter Vanderwarker

The word I hear most often when discussing Harvard’s master plan for Allston is “opportunity”—the same word every Commencement speaker will use this month about graduates facing the next phase of their young lives. But, unlike the array of opportunities facing our graduates, our goal is better defined as fulfilling a promise, the promise of Harvard’s Allston Initiative, and, in so doing, keeping our promises to Harvard, the neighborhood, the New England region, and the rest of the world.

After more than a decade of consultation, Harvard announced its master plan in January, laying out a strategic framework for 50 years of development in Allston. Since then, our plans have been in the public eye and have benefited from further scrutiny and input of the Harvard community, neighbors, city officials, business leaders, and others. Every day, Harvard planners, engineers, faculty, consultants, neighbors, and city officials dive deep into the details of bringing the master plan to life, with new roads, building designs, construction planning, budgets, and schedules, right down to mapping the route that construction trucks will use to travel to the first building site. This is all critical work that must be done to the highest standards. But the promise of Allston for Harvard requires us to lift our sights beyond project details. Our promise will be realized in the creation of a truly special place.

Realizing this ideal will be defined by three principles:

1. Make it work. Harvard will require the best design that world-class architects and engineers can create, guided by strategic academic planning that envisions Harvard’s present and future teaching and research needs. The researchers and students who will study and work in the Allston science complex will address critical life sciences questions and contribute life-saving discoveries to our society. The proposed Harvard University Art Museums Allston art center will bring more people—from students and scholars to the curious visitor—in closer touch with an exceptional art collection. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and forever afterward our buildings shape us.” All of Harvard’s new facilities in Allston must be designed to help advance knowledge for decades to come.

2. Make it welcoming. As Harvard moves toward greater collaboration and interdisciplinary teaching and research, new structures will be needed to bring faculty and students from various disciplines together in human-scale buildings with plenty of places to cross paths and learn from each other. The Allston campus will also be permeable, welcoming neighbors into green spaces and connecting residents to its educational and cultural resources. Both Harvard’s master plan and the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Framework Plan call for blending the University community and Allston residents and visitors, particularly at Barry’s Corner, with a mix of arts and culture, retail, athletics, and inviting open space. Innovative and environmentally sensitive transportation planning will make it easier to get to Allston and will favor walkers, cyclists, and mass transit over cars.

3. Make it memorable. While the red brick, wrought iron, and green yards of Harvard are a beloved University signature and will remain iconic for Harvard, we envision a contemporary, 21st century campus in Allston that will add a new dimension to Harvard’s image. It will be different, but equally as wonderful as Harvard’s Cambridge campus, with design, materials, proportions, and continuity echoing the excellence of Harvard’s campus today. Environmental sustainability will be built into every design decision, from the roads to the heating and cooling to the pedestrian walkways. The urban grain of one of America’s oldest cities will be respected, and the plan for open space will embrace the green vision of famed 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. As the Allston Initiative advances, the University orientation will lean more toward a campus with the Charles River running through its center, a natural and scenic jewel in the urban landscape for the enjoyment of all.

Harvard’s planning for Allston has been informed by the visionary foundation built by Presidents Neil L. Rudenstine, Lawrence H. Summers, and Derek C. Bok and will be led in its first fruition by President-elect Drew G. Faust. Each will leave an important legacy in Allston for generations to come.

Harvard’s plans in Allston are also inspired by bold thinking by government leaders. The commitment of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to the city’s neighborhoods and to greening the city and cutting greenhouses gases have informed Harvard’s master plan as much as his strong support of universities as partners in the economic future of Boston. And Harvard’s first priority in Allston is an interdisciplinary research center that will house the newly formed Department of Developmental and Regenerative Biology, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and other cutting-edge research initiatives. The synergy with Harvard’s plan for first science and Governor Deval H. Patrick ’78’s first major announcement on life sciences and stem cell research in the Commonwealth further shows an alignment of priorities that will surely benefit the citizens of Massachusetts and beyond. And the Allston Initiative is strengthened by the diligence and dedication of the neighborhood Allston Task Force, Allston residents, and elected officials engaged in the review process.

In the midst of plans, budgets, schedules, and details, our highest responsibility is to deliver on the promise of the great land resource Harvard has in Allston with a 50-year planning horizon. We’ll fulfill that promise when we build a remarkable campus and enrich the life of a great university, help grow the economy, and contribute to the quality of life of all in North Allston and beyond.

Christopher M. Gordon is chief operating officer of Harvard University’s Allston Development Group.