Harvard University’s decision more than 20 years ago to expand its campus into Allston was driven by a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Neighbors feared they might be run over in the process. But they rarely worried that Harvard would ever think too small. Now, it seems, they should.
The university’s latest master plan for Allston has shrunk from a 10-million-square-foot, “transformative’’ vision for the area to an overly cautious, 1.4-million-square-foot “nexus where campus and community meet.’’ Anxious to know what’s in store for them, Allston residents are meeting weekly with university officials. Unfortunately, Harvard’s ideas hardly look bold enough to make the waiting, and the inevitable disruptions, feel worthwhile.
There is nothing wrong, per se, about the individual components of the current plan, which include an addition to Harvard Stadium, a new basketball facility, additions to Harvard Business School, and a medium-sized hotel and conference center. But the latest plan lacks the place-making punch of the 2007 effort that envisioned new river crossings, a year-round garden under glass, and a reflecting pool that could double as a skating rink.
Harvard seems to have made peace with its downsized vision for Allston. Instead of planning for 50 years into the future, it is now looking no further than 10 years out. The 2007-2010 recession made realists of everyone. But Harvard’s neighbors in Allston still have legitimate gripes. Uses that might enliven the neighborhood have been pushed off into the future, while uses that benefit Harvard immediately gain traction. A planned hotel and conference center on Western Avenue, for example, isn’t scheduled for completion until the 2020-2024 period. Meanwhile, work is already underway on a new Harvard mail facility, fleet maintenance center, and furniture storage area in North Allston.
Barry’s Corner at the corner of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street has been the touchstone for neighbors trying to gauge Harvard’s commitment to the community. The university’s earlier vision for performing arts and other cultural uses at the site has given way to a deal with a private developer to build 325 housing units and 45,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. It will be a major improvement to the area. But it’s still a comedown.
Harvard officials still envision Allston as the next coming of Kendall Square in Cambridge, buzzing with innovative start-up companies and entrepreneurs. But the hoped-for “enterprise research campus’’ south of Western Avenue could still be 20 or more years away from taking shape. In 2010, Harvard opened an innovation lab in Allston that is used primarily to stimulate collaboration and entrepreneurship across the university’s many schools. The lab hosts many public events and workshops. But the truly creative work at the site is Harvard-centric. During its expansion into Kendall Square, MIT offered 100,000 square feet of affordable start-up space to outside entrepreneurs. Harvard should try to do something similar in the near future, perhaps in conjunction with its plans for a new science center.
Harvard’s earlier master plan may have created unrealistic expectations. But the current plan is too conservative to generate real excitement outside the university.