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Allston Residents Voice Frustration Over Harvard-Funded BPDA Needs Assessment

Allston residents voiced disappointment and disillusionment with the Boston Planning and Development Agency's final version of the Allston-Brighton Needs Assessment.
Allston residents voiced disappointment and disillusionment with the Boston Planning and Development Agency's final version of the Allston-Brighton Needs Assessment. By Zing Gee
By Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writer

The Boston Planning and Development Agency last Thursday approved the final version of the Allston-Brighton Needs Assessment, an analysis of the Allston-Brighton area for use by residents, developers, and service organizations.

Harvard financed the BPDA’s needs assessment, a community benefit that allowed the University to begin the first phase of constructing its Enterprise Research Campus in Allston. The document is intended to steer government and nonprofit efforts and help residents “advocate for benefits from private development projects,” though many residents said it largely failed to meet its goals.

The assessment — requested by the Harvard Allston Task Force, a city-appointed body of residents, and produced by three consultants and the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation — analyzed issues including affordable housing, employment, transportation, and food access in Allston.

Large scale development in the area poses a risk for increasing local rent, reducing cultural spaces, and adding strain to the affordable housing that is already available, according to the report.

Many residents associated with neighborhood organizations and involved in producing the assessment told The Crimson that despite Harvard’s $800,000 investment and months of resident engagement, the 155-page project did not yield new discoveries or effectively serve as a neighborhood resource.

“The findings of the report were no surprise,” said Jo-Ann E. Barbour, the executive director of a local affordable housing nonprofit who was interviewed for the assessment.

The shortage of affordable housing, educational access, and other issues included were “stuff we’ve already known,” Barbour added, though she admitted that it is “good to have all of that in one place.”

Lizzie M. Torres, a board member of the Allston Civic Association, called the initial draft “vague” and said it lacked new and specific information.

“An undergraduate with the same information could have assessed the same thing,” Torres said.

Brittany Comak, a spokesperson for the BPDA, wrote in an emailed statement on Jan. 5 that the BPDA is “confident” the assessment uplifts “the community’s voice.”

“The findings and recommendations go into detail about how this and other needs manifest in Allston-Brighton, what assets exist today, and how we collectively might address gaps going forward,” Comak wrote.

Some residents also said the report was not accessible.

Barbara M. Parmenter, a former urban planning lecturer at Tufts and a member of the Harvard Allston Task Force, said in a mid-December interview that she found it “difficult to find” the main takeaways of the report.

Although the assessment contains “valuable information,” Parmenter said, “it seems to be written for the BPDA rather than for the community” and is comparable to “academic text.”

Allston activist and resident Harry E. Mattison said that the funds allocated to produce the assessment would have been more effectively used in directly addressing local issues.

“Do we want to spend money to help people develop certain job skills, or to help people who need treatment for drug addiction?” he said. “One’s not right and one’s not wrong.”

Comak, the BPDA spokesperson, wrote that previous studies akin to the Allston-Brighton Needs Assessment have positively influenced neighborhood development. For instance, the Western Avenue Corridor Study and Rezoning led to development requirements for wider sidewalks, greenery, and bike paths along Western Avenue.

The assessment “is by no means considered to be an ‘end all, be all’ document, and is considered part of the beginning of a larger process to work with residents on a comprehensive community plan,” Comak wrote.

The needs assessment sets the stage for the BPDA’s upcoming Allston-Brighton Comprehensive Plan, scheduled for the next year and a half.

Nonetheless, perceived deficiencies in the report’s effectiveness contributed to disillusionment among some residents with the city’s engagement process.

Barbara Jaehn, a longtime Allston resident who helped conduct outreach for the assessment, described feeling “resignation, disappointment, and cynicism towards these processes.”

Cindy Marchando, the chair of the HATF involved with the assessment’s development, summed up residents’ frustrations with the product as “a complete letdown."

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at jack.trapanick@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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