Perspectives on Expansion: Part Three in a Five-Part Series on Campus Planning

CAMBRIDGE, MA-- Like the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University plans to expand along the riverfront abutting its campus, in this case the Charles River. But, unlike Penn, Harvard's plans involve expanding into the nearby neighborhood of North Allston, not an empty lot.

Because of this, Harvard provides a good comparison to Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, since both universities must acquire smaller parcels of land in a privately owned neighborhood.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a city agency, want to ensure that Harvard's development benefits city residents. The BRA wants to see renovation of a shopping plaza, new housing on Harvard properties, and new retail.

Since 55 percent of the land in Boston is occupied by tax-exempt institutions, most of which are universities, Mayor Menino is particularly interested in making sure that Harvard's development and investment benefits the surrounding areas.

The North Allston community, which is part of the City of Boston, has also been working with the university to ensure that their vision for the neighborhood is incorporated into the development plans. "No one is really upset because Harvard is promising them so much. In general, people are cautiously optimistic," said Debby Giovanditto, a North Allston resident and chair of the Charlesview Residents Organization.

Harvard is a few steps behind Columbia in its plans to expand into 200 acres of North Allston, but it has already created several faculty planning committees and hired a New York-based architecture firm, Cooper Robertson and Partners, to develop a general plan for Allston and to determine how the development will serve Harvard's future academic needs.

Lauren Marshall, the university's vice president for Public Relations, wrote in an e-mail, "We are at the beginning of long-range, multi-decade process. In planning for Allston, we are guided by Harvard's academic aspirations and needs long into the future."

Over the next two to three years, Harvard plans to expand their law school and science facilities in the North Yard area and to construct new graduate student housing along the river, according to the expansion plans presented in February 2005. Jackie O'Neill, director of Communications and External Relations, said that Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers is focused on improving the sciences, the School of Education and the School of Public Health, as well as expanding residential options, including housing for the community. As of now, Harvard does not have any specific plans about which buildings will be developed in Allston.

Harvard has a "space crunch and would like to build state-of-the-art facilities to attract and attain great science people. Universities by their very nature have to change and grow. New disciplines have to be accommodated," O'Neill said.

 

Third Party Purchases

 

In 1997, it was revealed that Harvard University had been purchasing individual plots of land under the names of different real estate organizations since the 1980s. Harvard had acquired more than 50 non-contiguous acres of land in different parts of Allston. Once discovered, these clandestine purchases created tense relations between the Allston community, the City of Boston, and the BRA.

O'Neill said the university originally decided to purchase the land in this manner to avoid being charged an unreasonable price by sellers who thought that they could name their price if Harvard was the buyer.

"The way we acquired the land was controversial, but it's common practice if you're an institution. I'm not sure it was such a big secret, but elected officials don't like to be surprised. We suffered after we went public. We were behind the curve with City Hall and with the community," O'Neill said.

Francois Vigier, the director of the Center for Urban Development Studies, said that Harvard was "burned for its arrogant behavior and is very conscious of its need to be careful."

Harvard now purchases all of its properties under the university's name and has worked to improve its relations with the City and the Allston community by providing services and retail. Since 1997, Harvard has given $20 million to the City for an affordable housing program, donated a new public library, revitalized a shopping center, and funded over 200 summer jobs for teenagers in 2003.

Kevin McCluskey, director of Community Relations, told the Harvard Crimson, "We're working with a terrific mayor who cares very deeply about every neighborhood in the city and understands that there are some very real benefits that can come from Harvard's growth for everyone involved."

 

Community

 

After centuries of encroachment in Cambridge, "by and large, people [here] don't want more Harvard development," O'Neill said.

Since development opportunities are limited in the immediate neighborhood, Harvard recognizes that the only space available is in Allston, the area adjacent to Cambridge on the other side of the Charles River. Harvard owns almost 200 acres of land in Allston, much of which consists of vacant warehouses, rail yards and industrial land. Currently, Harvard has its business school, athletic fields, and some office buildings in Allston. Soldier's Field, the university's athletic venue, has been in Allston since 1898.

The North Allston Strategic Framework for Planning, a four-year plan developed by the Allston community, the City, and Harvard, was finalized at the end of last year. Harvard will use this plan as a guideline for growth and economic development in North Allston.

"It's nice to have clarity about who you're negotiating with. We have a strong mayor and well-established and organized community. So, we can have discussions around concrete objectives," O'Neill said.

"Harvard is very pleased today to mark this initial step that strengthens the partnership among the university, the city, and the Allston community, and that will help guide the university's own planning efforts for Allston," President Summers told the Harvard Gazette. "It is important to the university that we continue to work with the city and the neighborhood to meet the needs of both a livable community and of a world-class teaching and research institution."

O'Neill also said that Harvard plans to "make short-term improvements that will benefit both the community and our own affiliates" while the university plans with the state and city more long-term, expensive development.

Since the exposure of Harvard's purchases, the university has continued to invest in the North Allston community. In December 2004, President Lawrence H. Summers committed $1.2 million toward neighborhood improvements.

This investment will fund a new career and business resource center, the Allston/Brighton Resource Center on Western Avenue, relocation assistance for Harvard commercial tenants, a study to determine possible locations for new and existing businesses, landscape improvements for 175 North Harvard Street, Brighton Mills and Smith Fields, and a neighborhood park. Harvard has also already funded a transportation study to measure the community impacts of the development projects.

"Allston neighbors are poorly served by transportation," O'Neill said. "They'll have public transport from the university. I think, personally, that the public needs to have access to transport until the city gets in there."

Mayor Menino told the Harvard Gazette, "The early action projects funded by Harvard University illustrate their long-term commitment to making the vision the community has articulated throughout the four-year planning process a reality."

O'Neill said that she thinks the Allston development will greatly benefit from the economic development that will come as a result of Harvard's expansion. "What we build for ourselves, we build for the community," O'Neill said.

"The community has stable leadership. They welcome the idea that Harvard will transform a place that's not really a place. Allston is geographically isolated from city," O'Neill added.

Giovanditto, on the other hand, spoke with pride about her neighborhood. "We're in a great location; we have a supermarket, a department store, a new library."

The Charlesview Residents Organization represents a housing complex in Allston currently being bought by Harvard. The board of this complex has been debating whether they want to stay in Allston while Harvard builds around them or relocate to a new location Harvard finds.

She said that most Allston residents recognize the many positives that can come from Harvard's expansion. She said that Harvard is "handing out money," and the residents hope to take advantage of these new developments.

"At the moment, Harvard is buying everything for the community. But, the moment that they don't adhere to what the community asks for, people will revolt," Giovanditto said. "The city attempts to keep Harvard in line, and if not, there will be a revolt, and that will bring Harvard bad press."

Giovanditto said that some members of the Allston community want more affordable housing, better transportation, and their own school, since the school that currently serves the community, Brighton High School, is "hideous and over-crowded."

While Giovanditto said that she thinks that Harvard has worked with the community, she doesn't think that Harvard will ever be a part of the Allston community.

"Our goal is to keep Harvard contained, rather than to divide the Allston community. The students are transient and will never really be part of the community," Giovanditto said.

 

Development

 

Harvard hired Cooper Robertson and Partners to develop a plan for their Allston Campus June 2004.

"Their task is to create a broad planning framework, including initial street and block patterns, open spaces, building density and height recommendations, as well as potential program locations and transportation improvements. This work is still underway," Marshall wrote in an e-mail.

She added that during the planning and design processes, Harvard would continue to work with the Allston community and the City through their community-based strategic planning process.

This development will be funded by university funds, a private philanthropy campaign, and debt financing, according to O'Neill.

Last year, four faculty task forces were created to address four areas of development President Summers put forward with respect to the Allston development, Marshall wrote in an e-mail. These task forces include science and technology, undergraduate life, professional schools, and the Allston Life Task Force-which includes housing, culture, and transportation. The four task groups have already produced preliminary reports and recommendations that will be incorporated into Cooper Robertson's plans.

Harvard is going to "try not to build at new campus, but make it an extension of the existing campus. Charles River will become the center-it's now perceived as the periphery. We will therefore need efficient transportation to accommodate class schedules," O'Neill said.

Brian Shea, a partner at Cooper Robertson and Partners who is working on the lands for Allston, said that while Harvard's subcommittees have been helpful in determining what the academic use of the campus will be, the university is "finding some of the reports to be too idealistic, and now a lot of them have to cut back. That's being reviewed by the advisory committee."

Shea explained that one big issue for Harvard is the fact that they have many graduate schools, and that "historically, their graduate schools did their own planning, their own financing, their own buildings-the university has never done any central planning. So, at Harvard the first issue is to try to develop a comprehensive plan in a historical environment where a comprehensive plan had never been done."

Another issue that complicates Harvard's development, according to Shea, is the fact that the university is located in two cities, Cambridge and Boston, and must therefore take into consideration the different city laws and community needs.

Vigier outlined three important topics for Harvard to keep in mind when developing in Allston. First, he said that it would be most efficient to move a whole school's faculty to Allston, even though it would cause students from other faculties to have a long commute between classes.

Shea said, however, that none of the graduate schools want to be the first ones to cross the river. The graduate schools all say, "We don't want to move to Siberia," Shea said. "No one wants to become part of the first phase."

Secondly, Vigier said he thinks that creating a transportation link between these two campuses will be important to uniting Allston to Cambridge. "There are no realistic plans yet. They've considered building a tunnel under the river, or a monorail," Vigier said.

Finally, Vigier argued that Harvard must think about how to create "a sense of urban community. This is not done with teaching buildings, but with housing, apartments, and the development of a commercial core. they must create a 'mini Harvard square.'"

** Correction Appended

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