As Harvard looks to develop all its empty land in Allston, the university wants to fix flooding issues that plague the area. The solution: a massive drainpipe, up to seven feet in diameter, that will empty rainwater into the nearby Charles River.
The university plans to foot the entire bill, estimated in the tens of millions, even though the project would also help protect some 1,500 nearby homes.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
Mike Moran doesn’t think so. The state representative for the area is digging in his heels as Harvard and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission pursue approvals for the massive pipe.
Sure, the Harvard pipe would benefit many of his constituents. But Moran said he wants to know far more about Harvard’s vision for the area before supporting construction that could disrupt the neighborhood for two years. Harvard owns nearly 140 acres south of its business school that it eventually wants to develop, although the pipe would serve only a portion of that land.
Moran has an unusual opportunity to stonewall Harvard. Here’s why: The drainpipe, Boston’s biggest water-and-sewer project in a decade, would pass through a strip of state parkland, along the Charles. That means Harvard needs an act of the Legislature, known in State House arcana as an “Article 97,” to proceed. And the university doesn’t have a prayer without the local state representative going along.
They have danced around this issue before. But the impasse became more pronounced in recent weeks as the permitting process began with the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Moran and his Senate counterpart, Sal DiDomenico, sent a letter to state environmental secretary Katie Theoharides, asking her not to sign any permit. The lawmakers emphasized with bold, underlined words that they have no plans to file an Article 97 bill because they don’t see the need right now.
They have an important ally: the Charles River Watershed Association. The environmental group also expressed concerns to Theoharides, saying there is still not enough information about the potential impacts on the river and its ecosystem.
The clock is ticking. Harvard concurrently filed plans with the state for a 1.9-million-square-foot, multi-use development planned for 14 acres across Western Avenue from the business school. Harvard has teamed up with New York-based developer Tishman Speyer to build out that property, dubbed the Enterprise Research Campus.
Harvard officials maintain they don’t need the pipe for the Enterprise Research Campus project to proceed, at least not for the first phase. But they would prefer the drainpipe be advanced on a parallel track. They cite construction synergies, and the improved flood controls it would provide for a 160-acre swath of land.
Spokeswoman Brigid O’Rourke points out that Harvard would pay the entire price tag — well more than $50 million — to fortify the neighborhood during bad storms and alleviate persistent surface flooding. The pipe, she says, would include a filtering device to prevent much of the rainwater sediment from flowing into the Charles.
Moran, meanwhile, remains unconvinced. He says he sees no reason for permitting to continue without more information about Harvard’s long-term plans.
The standoff underscores the wariness among many Allston neighbors who still view Harvard as a wealthy interloper from across the river. Harvard has done much to address the town-gown rift in recent years. But if Moran’s stance is any indication, the university’s community relations work isn’t done yet.
Harvard has its eyes on another infrastructure project to unlock the potential of the Allston land, this one much, much bigger: the realignment of the nearby Mass. Pike. State officials have yet to say how they would pay for the $1.3 billion highway project, but they do want Harvard to kick in more than the $58 million that it pledged toward a new train station in the area. Like Moran, they want Harvard’s canvas to be more fully sketched out.
Theoharides ended up signing an “environmental notification form” certificate on March 12 for the drainpipe. But it is just the first of many state permits. She acknowledged the project can’t be done without that Article 97 approval.
Translation: In this standoff, Moran could end up having the final word after all.