Can Harvard University avoid turning its Allston campus into another generic, overpriced civic nullity like Kendall Square or worse, the Seaport District? That’s the question vexing many skeptical Allston residents, who have felt seduced and abandoned by Harvard ever since the university secretly purchased 52 acres in the neighborhood in the 1990s. Now Harvard owns more land in Boston than it does in Cambridge — officials joke about the ivied halls of Cambridge being “the satellite campus” — and its challenge is to develop a living, breathing community across the Charles River that serves more than just the university’s need for lab and office space.
The track record for institutions expanding thoughtfully into Boston neighborhoods is not good, but Tom Glynn is certainly going to try. Glynn is the CEO of the new Harvard Allston Land Company, charged with building out the university’s Allston properties. Fresh off six years as director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, where he helped heal relations between the transportation behemoth and aggrieved neighbors in East Boston, Glynn aims to challenge stereotypes about Boston’s insular development culture. “People think Boston is a very closed real estate town,” he said with characteristic understatement.
The first test comes with Harvard’s 14-acre Enterprise Research Campus: 900,000 square feet for labs, offices, private companies, housing, and a hotel-conference center. Glynn and his team have narrowed the developers bidding for this plum project to three finalists, and all are required to show a meaningful commitment to diversity. Glynn has recruited Ernest Green, one of the original Little Rock Nine students who integrated the Arkansas public schools, in 1957, as a consultant and kind of ambassador, helping to bring “new faces’’ into the equation.
Green played a similar role with Glynn at Massport, where the agency redeveloped some underused properties with explicit instructions to engage nontraditional players. They devised a rating system that gave development teams 25 points out of 100 for diversity, alongside other factors such as design excellence and financial viability. The 1,000-room Omni Hotel, under construction on Massport land across from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, involves Stull and Lee architects, Boston’s premier black-owned firm; the minority-owned Janey Construction and Management; real estate executive Richard Taylor; and a rainbow of local equity partners. One of the Allston finalists, HYM Investment Group, has tapped some of the Omni group for its Allston bid. (Other finalists include Alexandria Real Estate Equities and National Development; and Breakthrough Properties, specializing in life sciences development.)
Of course, Boston’s idea of “new faces” goes only so far. The Omni Hotel’s other architecture firm is Elkus Manfredi, the city’s largest, which has designed the majority of new buildings in the Seaport; HYM Investment is owned by Tom O’Brien, former director of what was then the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Furthermore, as Glynn himself says, “diversity” also extends to the mix of uses — and residents — that populate a neighborhood. A lesson Harvard can learn from the Seaport is that careless planning can lead to bland buildings, pedestrian hazard zones, and ritzy chain retail. Allston will be a departure, he promises. “We’re trying to create a community there, not just a suburban office park on Western Avenue.’’ Doing that requires expanding the lens.
To be a real neighborhood, housing can’t go for $1,000 a square foot, as in the Seaport, and should include homeownership as well as rental units. The labs and offices need to weave into the existing neighborhood fabric seamlessly, with a public realm — green space, cultural institutions and retail — that develops organically. Then there are knotty questions of transportation (could Harvard shuttles be offered to locals?), infrastructure, and sustainability along the riverfront.
For buzzworthy public spaces, Glynn points to the planned relocation of the American Repertory Theater to Allston, and the newly opened ArtLab. It doesn’t hurt that Harvard president Larry Bacow’s wife, Adele, is an urban planner keenly interested in the intersection of community development and the arts.
Miscues and delays have plagued Harvard’s Allston project, which is devilishly complex and dependent on other initiatives, such as the redesign of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Harvard can be patient: it famously operates on a 50-year timeline. Meanwhile, Allston residents gaze on vast tracts of cleared land and yearn for a bit of urgency. It won’t happen overnight, but deliberate planning and a commitment to community can make Boston’s newest neighborhood something worth waiting for.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.