The meeting took place more than two decades ago, but longtime Allston resident Brent Whelan remembers it like yesterday.
Developer Beal Cos. had bought land along Western Avenue and was seeking community input about what to do with it.
The problem, from the perspective of Whelan and many of his neighbors, was this: They later discovered the developer was buying on behalf of Harvard University, which was eyeing an expansion from over the river in Cambridge. Ostensibly, the secrecy was a way to avoid driving up the price, but no matter the motivation, the maneuver sowed distrust.
Now, as Harvard partners with private developers to build its answer to Kendall Square on the vast holdings it has accumulated in Allston, the country’s oldest and wealthiest university is confronting the ghosts of its past. Harvard has received blowback as it seeks approval for the first piece of this massive development puzzle, a 14-acre section of what it dubs its Enterprise Research Campus, across Western Avenue from its business school. Just last month, Allston’s elected leaders urged Acting Mayor Kim Janey to bottle up city approvals until after the November elections, citing concerns that Harvard is being too guarded about its larger intentions.
If town-gown relations don’t improve, this could just be the start of Harvard’s headaches.
The university has roughly 150 acres left to develop in Allston, most of it in the old Beacon Park Yard and tied up in the long-debated realignment of the Massachusetts Turnpike that now hems in the former rail yard. Harvard leaders want neighborhood support to help unlock what could amount to decades of new construction, bringing jobs, housing, and opportunity to Boston’s northwestern edge.
But winning that trust won’t be easy. Harvard and developer Tishman Speyer have spelled out plans for those initial 14 acres: a roughly 1.9 million-square-foot complex that would include offices, labs, apartments, a hotel and conference center, and part of a greenway to help connect the area to the Charles River. But neighbors say they need a broader vision of Harvard’s ultimate aims in Allston — not just details about individual projects.
“We sort of feel like Harvard needs to show its cards,” Whelan said. “Has Harvard been a good, open partner? Far from it.”
Despite the friction, Harvard and the nearby residents do have interests that overlap. No single landowner would benefit more than Harvard from the Pike realignment, while the community sees the star-crossed project as a way to heal the fissure sliced through Allston when the highway extension was built in the mid-1960s. Harvard would chip in $58 million toward West Station, a transit hub that residents say is long overdue. And the university has committed tens of millions to a massive drainpipe to serve some of its land but also a big swath of the neighborhood.
But local civic leaders continue to cast a wary eye toward the giant institution, which owns more than 350 acres in Allston, by some estimates one-third of the neighborhood. That includes nearly 190 acres used directly by Harvard, such as its athletic facilities, the business school, and its new science and engineering complex. Harvard’s Allston portfolio also includes the 36-acre Enterprise Research Campus area and roughly 100 acres in the former Beacon Park rail yard.
“Harvard is performing as a development company, not as an educational institution,” said Anthony D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association. “They talked about Beacon Park being the next Seaport District. If it’s going to turn out like the Seaport, we don’t want any of that.”
Like Whelan, D’Isidoro remembers Harvard secretly buying up parts of the neighborhood through Beal Cos. (Harvard notes the land where the Tishman project will go was bought in a public auction from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.) Even today, he says, Harvard brings in private developers — such as Tishman and Samuels & Co. — as partners that bear the brunt of community relations work for these new projects.
Harvard’s primary go-between in these discussions has been Mark Handley, director of government affairs and community relations at the university. But civic leaders such as D’Isidoro argue that the top Harvard brass — including president Larry Bacow — should play a more prominent role.
Perhaps no neighborhood drama illustrates Harvard’s challenges better than the dustup over the drainpipe.
At a cost of well north of $50 million, the storm-water pipeline proposed for North Allston would be the most expensive in the Boston Water and Sewer Commission’s history. Its cost would be fully shouldered by Harvard, which would like it to serve the area of the Tishman development along Western Avenue, though university officials say they have a backup plan for the first part of that project, at least, should the pipeline not work out.
They might need it.
Because the pipe would cross state parkland to reach the Charles, the use of that land must be approved by the Legislature, through a bill filed by the local state representative. In this case, that would be state Representative Mike Moran. And he wants to know what Harvard has in mind for the neighborhood.
Without more details for the area beyond those first 14 acres, Moran said he has no intention to file the bill. Harvard says it’s sharing everything it can. The impasse has stretched on for two years.
“This is the one and only time in my lifetime that the people who live down there actually have a real voice,” Moran said. “I’m not giving up that voice just because Harvard is asking me to do that.”
Harvard and Tishman are hearing from the neighborhood, too, as the first section of the Enterprise Research Campus undergoes review by the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Community leaders are pushing for more affordable housing, urging at least 20 percent of the 765 apartments planned there be set at below-market rents, up from the city requirement of 13 percent. Tishman has proposed doing more than the minimum, but says it can’t do 20 percent in the first phase of the development, before more lucrative lab space can be built, though it can reach that threshold in the second phase.
And some in Allston just want more housing in general, particularly considering how many more life science jobs could be coming with other projects planned nearby. Resident Jessica Robertson worries that Allston could turn out like parts of Cambridge, with lab and office construction far outpacing new housing and gradually making the neighborhood more homogenous, more bland, and more costly.
“Today, Allston is a diverse community in a number of ways,” Robertson said. “Is it going to be a neighborhood populated entirely by pharma bros? That’s definitely my fear.”
Still, she conceded that while Harvard may represent, in some ways, the biggest threat to the neighborhood, the university’s wealth and long-term vision could also represent Allston’s biggest opportunity. Robertson pointed to the success of the Charlesview apartments, an affordable housing complex nearly a mile down Western Ave. from Harvard Business School that Harvard helped rebuild nearly a decade ago. That project earned kudos for how it was integrated with the surrounding community.
“Harvard is committed to working with its host communities to address the region’s high cost of housing and creating home ownership opportunities,” Harvard spokeswoman Brigid O’Rourke said in an e-mail.
O’Rourke also said there are dozens of opportunities for Harvard to engage with Allston, and “we’re proud of the deep and meaningful relationships we have throughout the neighborhood.” She noted various ways the university will solicit feedback from a broader array of residents beyond those tuning into BPDA meetings on Zoom, including with “pop-up” appearances at events, focus groups, and workshops.
Harvard’s Mark Handley also presented a peace offering in late July: nearly an acre of land on Seattle Street — near the southwestern edge of its Enterprise Research Campus area — that the university would give away to support development of affordable condos. It was a response to concerns that housing at the ERC will be all rental units. Details remain minimal, but the finished product could resemble a 20-unit condo project on Harvard-donated land, on nearby Antwerp Street.
Neighbors found the offer encouraging, though it’s unlikely to assuage concerns that Harvard’s undeveloped portion of Allston is at risk of becoming another Seaport — or in city councilor Liz Breadon’s words, “a playground for folks who are mostly white people who have a lot of money.”
“There’s an expectation that Harvard can do more,” said Breadon, who recently sent the letter to Janey urging city officials to wait until after this fall’s mayoral election to approve the research campus project and a rezoning study for a nearby stretch of Western Ave., where Harvard also owns property.
The letter — which was also signed by Moran and two other state legislators who represent the neighborhood — accused Harvard of “grossly insufficient” community outreach.
Breadon said her constituents worry Harvard is too reliant on a piecemeal approach with third-party developers rather than taking more responsibility for articulating a broader plan. They wonder: Is Harvard hiding the full picture, yet again?
“I haven’t seen this level of frustration in the neighborhood in over 10 years,” Breadon said. “They’re doing this one project at a time. ... [It] really is a war of attrition.”