Critics of Harvard University’s big development plans in Allston are teaming up and calling in the reinforcements.
A newly established coalition of community groups sent a nearly 20-page letter to Mayor Michelle Wu over the weekend, listing a long line of commitments they want to see from Harvard as the institution embarks on about 140 acres of development in Allston. The letter — from the Coalition for a Just Allston-Brighton — has been in the works for several months and was sent amid a city review of a crucial first stage of Harvard’s plans.
The coalition echoes long-held concerns voiced by members of a neighborhood task force around affordable housing, open space, and transportation, but represents a broader collection of roughly 35 advocacy groups. It’s a show of strength that underscores the importance of Harvard’s development vision, said organizer Kevin Carragee, particularly at this pivotal time for the institution and the neighborhood.
“The development of Harvard’s land is going to determine the future of this neighborhood,” Carragee said. “That’s not hyperbole. It’s just the truth.”
For its part, Harvard says it has heard the neighbors’ concerns, and outlined plans to address them in a letter executive vice president Katie Lapp sent last month to Wu and other officials. Lapp’s commitments included a pledge that 20 percent of housing in its future Allston projects would be set aside as income-restricted units, and 25 percent of retail space reserved for local businesses or those owned by women or people of color. Her letter reflected many of the issues raised in two meetings with Wu and other elected officials about Harvard’s plans.
But neighborhood groups are pressing for far more as negotiations come to a head around the first phase of what Harvard calls its Enterprise Research Campus: 900,000 square feet to be developed by New York firm Tishman Speyer on Harvard-owned land off Western Avenue.
The project is under review by the Boston Planning & Development Agency. Terms there could set a template for the rest of the research campus development, and possibly other Harvard projects, including ones that would eventually go up on the 100-acre Beacon Park Yard, a former rail yard to be opened up for construction once a realignment of the Mass. Turnpike is complete.
The coalition’s push also comes as activists gear up to prod city officials to rework Boston’s approach to payments-in-lieu-of-taxes for universities and other large nonprofits. Also looming on the horizon: the city reviews next year of master plans for Harvard, Boston College, and Boston University. All three schools are major landholders in Allston or Brighton, and this group could become a factor in those reviews.
“The coalition will hopefully have much more legs to it even beyond Harvard,” said Tony D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association. “All three universities [are] all coming up for [institutional master plan] renewals next year.”
But first, Harvard.
So what do the advocates want? Their list includes pledges to: devote one third of all housing built on Harvard-owned land to income-restricted units; minimize car traffic by people commuting to offices and labs there; balance lab and residential development; designate one-third of retail space for small-scale, locally owned businesses; and give the city easements for open space on Harvard land.
Carragee said the group wants a more comprehensive planning approach to tie all these things together, and avoid the challenges seen in the Seaport during the past decade.
“We don’t want another Seaport out here,” Carragee said. “This is a crucial moment.”
Wu’s office issued a statement saying the mayor is committed to incorporating community input into current and future projects in Allston, and ensuring Harvard’s projects help build a successful neighborhood. The administration aims to prioritize public transportation, green space, and affordable housing. These issues are bound to come up on Friday, when Wu is scheduled to meet with members of the Harvard-Allston Task Force. D’Isidoro, a task force member, said the meeting was set up independently of the coalition letter.
In response to the coalition’s letter, Harvard spokeswoman Brigid O’Rourke said in an e-mail that Harvard’s long-term goal for this area “is to transform obsolete and mostly impermeable industrial properties into new, vibrant, equitable and welcoming districts that will complement and enrich the Allston-Brighton community and create opportunity for inclusive development and innovation.”
O’Rourke added that Harvard officials are grateful for the collaboration with Allston-Brighton community members and elected officials, and that Harvard is proud of its expanded commitments to the neighborhood, as detailed in Lapp’s letter, for everything from planning to affordable housing, to workforce development.
A few members of the Harvard-Allston Task Force did not sign this letter. Among them is Troy Brogan, who moved to Allston about six years ago and lives behind the Enterprise Research Campus site. Brogan said he understands the need to negotiate the best possible community benefits package from Harvard. But he also said he couldn’t think of a property owner more well suited to develop the open land in Allston.
“Harvard’s a great neighbor,” said Brogan, citing Harvard’s willingness to allow the public to exercise in its stadium as an example. “There tends to be a generational disconnect with Harvard. People who have been here a long time have some sort of generational bias against the university or just don’t trust the university as much as perhaps I do.”
Count D’Isidoro among the skeptics on the task force. He said he appreciates the solidarity shown by other like-minded community groups as they press Harvard for more commitments.
“At least in the Harvard situation, you’ve got David against Goliath,” D’Isidoro said. “This is an attempt to kind of level the playing field a bit.”