What will Harvard University’s version of Allston look like?
After years of fits and starts, the university is sketching out details for the first new buildings of its massive campus expansion in North Allston, giving residents and other parties a preview of what Harvard's 151-acre holdings will look like after millions of dollars of new construction.
Among the first areas to see development under the plan is the so-called Barry’s Corner, at the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue, which will have a mix of housing, retail, institutional, and commercial development that resembles a city neighborhood more than a college campus. In various presentations, Harvard and its developer have invoked Davis Square in Somerville, which has more of a small-town feel with its homey mix of low-rise residences and independent retailers, and separately, the resurgent Fenway area, where sleek, tall buildings and trendy restaurants on Boylston Street have created a more cosmopolitan vibe.
The reference to Boylston Street is no coincidence. The developer Harvard tapped to build a large residential complex at Barry’s Corner, Samuels & Associates , is also responsible for many of the new developments in the Fenway area, including the Fenway Triangle Trilogy building and the 1330 Boylston luxury apartments. Samuels said the Barry’s Corner complex will reflect elements of both styles.
“It’s possible to have the best of all worlds: to create a vibrant, ground-floor experience with a mix of shops, service providers, restaurants, and casual gathering spaces and to have density above to support those spaces that are designed to be consistent with the neighborhood, create view corridors, and distribute massing in a way that does not feel ‘bulky’ at street level,” said Samuels vice president Leslie Cohen.
In Fenway, Samuels developed tall residential buildings with ground-level retail businesses that draw a lot of foot traffic. The firm is bringing a scaled-down version of that template to Barry’s Corner with a two-building complex that would top out at 11 stories and include about 300 housing units with retail on the ground floor, according to preliminary plans unveiled at a neighborhood meeting this week.
“We envision a vibrant retail center that connects the neighborhood with Harvard University,” said Cohen. “We really want to make this a place where retail is concentrated in a small enough area so it feels scalable and walkable, but also has all the things people need for everyday life.”
The latest plan, revised to include a one-story underground parking garage at the suggestion of neighbors, will allow for bookstores, restaurants, and cafes, as well as more space-intensive uses like a health club or day-care center. Samuels also envisions dedicating some of the site’s open space to public uses such as concerts, movie screenings, and other events, Cohen said.
Residents have called the current incarnation of Barry’s Corner a “ghost town.” It has gas stations and convenience stores, nondescript Harvard support buildings, and the hulking Charlesview apartment complex that is being relocated to make way for new academic buildings.
The larger Harvard expansion, scheduled to unfold over a period of years, includes several distinct sections: Barry’s Corner will be a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood center with residences and stores; the area along North Harvard Street opposite Harvard Stadium will feature academic buildings and have more of a traditional campus feel; meanwhile, the former CSX railroad property off Western Avenue will host a privately developed “enterprise research campus” that blends industry and academia in the model of Cambridge’s Kendall Square.
Near that business park is the other major Harvard development poised to get underway soon: the Health and Life Science Center, expected to include state-of-the-art labs for everything from stem-cell research to engineering. Construction on the building, which would be the university’s biggest-ever science facility, was halted in late 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis but is expected to resume in 2014.
In a statement, Harvard said the Barry’s Corner development is an essential first step in getting the expansion plan off to the right start.
“As we move forward with the Health and Life Science Center and the master planning process, we believe that activating Barry’s Corner is essential to attract researchers, scientists, and employees to the area, and will further knit together the Harvard and Allston community,” Harvard said.
Samuels made its name with the 1 million-square-foot Fenway Triangle Trilogy building in Fenway, which helped spark a wave of development nearby. Cohen alluded to how Trilogy triggered an incremental, “building-by-building” transformation of Boylston Street. Barry’s Corner, she said, “is a different scale than Fenway, but it’s the same type of work. We’re bringing in uses that the neighborhood wants.”
Samuels expects to submit a formal proposal to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in October, and hopes to break ground in late 2013.
The project, though, is subject to a public review process that is already contentious, as some Allston neighbors have complained that the taller building will dwarf others in the neighborhood. And with other nearby Harvard projects still on hold, they fret that the development will not achieve the critical mass needed to revitalize the semidormant area on its own.
“I don’t see this as a place community members are going to flock to,” said Allston Civic Association president Paul Berkeley, who also sits on the Harvard-Allston Task Force, which is reviewing the university’s plans. “All I’ve heard from them is concerns and questions. We’ve got a long way to go before we can come to an agreement on this.”