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Allston Expansion Causes Tension with Residents

By Nan Ni, Crimson Staff Writer

A year ago, Harvard’s four-building, 589,000-square-foot science complex existed only on paper. By the end of the summer, officials say they plan to begin working on the foundation of the glass complex that will house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

For the University, the last year has been one of rapid approvals that have propelled it from planning the largest campus expansion in its history to actually building it.

“There have been a lot of good milestones, and it’s nice to get some tangible work started,” said Christopher M. Gordon, chief operating officer of Harvard’s Allston Development Group. “It helps to make things more real for everyone involved.”

In October, the City of Boston approved the University’s science complex in Allston. In November, Harvard finalized the purchase of the Charlesview Apartments, ending three years of negotiations and giving the University access to a five-acre plot that will serve as the entrance to its proposed campus. And, in March, Boston and Harvard officials signed the cooperation agreement—a document outlining benefits the University will provide to the area over the next decade—finally allowing them to break ground on the science complex.

Indeed, Gordon described 2007-2008 as a “good year” for Harvard as it embarks upon a 50-year expansion that will result in a 350-acre campus across the Charles.

But while the progress the University has made this year will have a significant impact on Harvard and Allston in the future, some residents say they want to see changes that will have an immediate impact on the community.

REBUILDING A NEIGHBORHOOD

During the late 1990s, Harvard began a neighborhood planning process, at the request of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, to coordinate the University’s plans for its property in Allston with the community’s needs. In 2004, the series of meetings resulted in the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Plan, a document that focused on maintaining housing affordability, creating open space, and ensuring greater economic opportunity in the neighborhood.

“The community, Harvard, and the City worked together to establish a series of mutually interdependent goals to ensure that planning to accommodate Harvard’s strategy would unlock the ability to address a number of critical issues,” the report notes.

Although the University has often spoken broadly about the ways its expansion will revitalize Allston in the long-term, some residents say Harvard’s presence has negatively affected their short-term circumstances.

“If you lived in the neighborhood, our quality of life has not changed in two years,” said Harvard Allston Task Force member Harry Mattison. “There are vacant Harvard properties all over the neighborhood and there’s a huge construction project going on which has had its rocky moments.”

While Harvard has made a commitment to address these concerns, Mattison said that the community wants answers to remaining uncertainties.

“We still have big questions about housing, transportation, retail, and those other small-scale, but substantial changes that really make a community,” he said.

But Gordon said that bringing new businesses to Allston would be a focus for Harvard in the next year in addition to the master planning process and officials have already begun work in this area.

In mid-May, Finale Dessert Company opened a new commercial bakery in a Harvard-owned building in Allston, and is also considering opening a small retail pastry kitchen on the site.

And, according to spokeswoman Lauren Marshall, Harvard is currently marketing all of the available space it owns in Allston and has attracted several new tenants, including a financial services firm and two start-up companies.

Additionally, the University plans to open an education portal this summer and planning has just begun on Library Park, a one-acre, $3.5 million public space that Harvard has pledged to maintain for a decade.

“We hope to add some life back into Allston,” Gordon said.

BUILDING A PARTNERSHIP

Although Task Force member Brent Whelan said he was “excited” to see Harvard’s expansion plans progress, he also said he was worried about the University’s commitment to working with the community.

Whelan cited Harvard’s hands-off approach to rebuilding Charlesview as an example of this lack of concern for Allston residents.

“Harvard really undid a lot of that goodwill by pushing off the planning process to others without any input from the community,” he said, referring to the fact that Community Builders Inc. is using money provided by the University to complete the relocation.

“It sent a completely terrible signal to the community in the wake of relief that the science complex debate was settled,” he added.

Gordon acknowledged that Harvard has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to dealing with Allston residents.

“We are working to be a better partner, and part of partnership is living up to the commitments we’ve set out for ourselves this year,” he said.

The University’s chief planner Kathy Spiegelman said she agreed with Gordon and that the past year was a particularly difficult one for Harvard in terms of informing residents of its plans.

“We were so focused on deciding what was in the cooperation agreement that we were not able to share with the community as much as we wanted to,” said Spiegelman, who added that Harvard would aim to be more transparent in the coming year. “We didn’t want to communicate something that might change later.”

Gordon said that the top priority for the coming school year is working with the community to fine-tune the master plan and the community benefits package that will accompany it.

“Things will be equally busy if not more,” Gordon said. “Next year will be a very interesting year.”

—Staff writer Nan Ni can be reached at nni@fas.harvard.edu.

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