The debate over Harvard’s vast land holdings in Allston is shaping up to be one of Boston’s most consequential development sagas. And it’s now Mayor Michelle Wu’s turn to referee it all.
From Harvard’s perspective, the university just took a big step forward by extending an olive branch to its wary neighbors. Executive vice president Katie Lapp spelled out a long list of commitments in a letter, sent to Wu and others last week, to address concerns about gentrification, green space, and traffic as Harvard tries to start turning over pieces of nearly 140 acres it controls in Allston for commercial development.
But will it be enough to get the green light to begin? Maybe not. State Representative Mike Moran, a Brighton Democrat who has led the scrutiny of Harvard’s plans, said he views what was outlined as just a starting point for neighborhood negotiations. In other words, it won’t be easy getting the university’s Enterprise Research Campus, a multi-block project submitted to the Boston Planning & Development Agency a year ago, on the agenda for approval anytime soon.
Lapp’s letter follows some high-level talks involving her, Wu, Moran, and City Councilor Liz Breadon. They’ve met in person twice since Wu, a Harvard alum, was elected in November. Moran said Wu made it clear in the last meeting, held earlier this month, that there needs to be more involvement from the neighborhood before her administration advances Harvard’s plans. A spokesperson for the mayor said Friday that she’s committed to incorporating community input into current and future proposals for Allston, to help build a successful urban neighborhood with a focus on mass transit, affordable housing, and open space.
Also in the mix: a promise in December from Harvard president Larry Bacow to a neighborhood task force that would make Harvard’s planning chief available to meet with task force members, to improve community feedback.
Lapp’s letter, sent to Wu and the politicians who represent Allston as well as the neighborhood task force, provides more fodder for these discussions. She wrote that Harvard’s ultimate goal for this land — the 36-acre Enterprise Research Campus, across Western Avenue from the business school, and the roughly 100-acre Beacon Park Yard to the south of the ERC — is to turn obsolete industrial sites into vibrant and welcoming districts.
Several commitments she listed have already been made before, such as a promise to give away an acre on Seattle Street for affordable condos. But others are new, led by a pledge that 20 percent of housing units in future ERC projects would be income-restricted. Ditto for Beacon Park Yard, a commitment that’s subject to a realignment of the Mass. Turnpike and appropriate zoning relief from the city. Harvard also would set aside up to $10 million over five years for housing, and $1 million over three years for workforce training. And it would ensure that one-fifth of the ERC, once fully built, would consist of publicly accessible open space.
Moran, it’s safe to say, was unimpressed. Neighbors have long wanted 20-percent affordability for housing there, at a minimum. Yes, the 20-percent is a step up from Boston’s mandate of 13 percent. But Moran is quick to point out that just over the Charles River, Harvard’s home city of Cambridge already sets 20 percent as the floor. He took issue with Harvard’s disclaimer that none of the open space would be subject to public easements. And he said the transportation improvements, such as allowing residents to ride Harvard shuttles and a four-year-old pledge of $58 million toward a commuter rail station, seemed unsurprising or uninspiring.
Longtime Allston residents may need more convincing, too. They have not forgotten when Harvard assembled some of its land quietly in the neighborhood, through a developer, more than two decades ago. (Most of the property in question, however, was acquired through a public auction.) They saw the reports of Harvard’s endowment swelling beyond $50 billion last year. And they worry that the issues that followed the Seaport’s redevelopment — high housing costs, traffic jams, inadequate diversity — could afflict their part of the city.
Just ask Tony D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association: He appreciates the concessions but considers Lapp’s letter to be a “timid response” given the degree of Harvard’s resources.
Harvard’s immediate concern is the first phase of its Enterprise Research Campus. New York developer Tishman Speyer has spelled out plans for a 1.9-million-square-foot, mixed-use development, with apartments, labs, offices, restaurants, shops, and a hotel, on 14 acres. (Tishman Speyer has pledged just under 20 percent affordability, on average, for its housing there.) Plans for the first half — 900,000 square feet in total — remain on hold at the BPDA after Allston’s political leaders raised concerns.
Maybe the most important thing residents want from Harvard is a clearer vision of what it wants to do with the rest of the land, much of it a former rail yard. Harvard still has no real details to share, at least not publicly, other than to say its intentions for most of this acreage is for commercial (read: taxable) uses. Harvard doesn’t need the massive turnpike realignment to get going on the first 14 acres. However, while many neighbors say more planning can and should be done in advance, most of the actual construction for the rest of this land hinges on straightening out the highway.
Toward that end, state transportation officials met with representatives for the city and Harvard earlier this month to advance the $1.7 billion infrastructure project — a figure that includes the West Station intermodal hub as well as surface roads — and to figure out who will pay for what. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation will apply for federal funding, but also expects Harvard and Boston to contribute. Harvard, for example, might end up fronting a bigger subsidy for West Station, and the city could help with a new local road network, maybe using new property taxes on development there.
Few real estate investors can better afford to play the long game than a nearly 400-year-old institution like Harvard. But that patience might be put to the test if the university can’t win over the mayor, the local elected officials, or the neighbors. This could be the largest stretch of land in Boston up for development under Wu’s administration, and she will want to get it right.