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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

How one state representative is stymying Harvard’s Allston plans

As university eyes huge expansion on the Boston side of the Charles, Brighton Representative Mike Moran has emerged as a thorn in their side

State Representative Mike Moran (left) has been embroiled in a fight for more transparency from Harvard University in its development plans in the Boston neighborhood of Allston for the past two years, and the Brighton Democrat has not shown any indication of backing down.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

He is sidelining a Harvard-funded storm drain project in Allston, and holding up its efforts to develop land across from its business school. And now he’s taking Harvard to task for not sharing more details about plans to build above the future path of the Mass. Pike, in the former Beacon Park railyard.

Unfortunately for the world’s wealthiest university, all roads on the Boston side of the Charles lead through state Representative Mike Moran.

The latest chapter in Harvard’s years-long saga in Allston unfolded last week when Moran prodded Harvard executive vice president Katie Lapp for more information about plans for the railyard. It’s a question that hangs over negotiations between state transportation officials and the university over what Harvard should contribute to the $1.7 billion realignment of the Mass. Pike, which would in turn open up the roughly 100-acre Beacon Park for Harvard to develop. Harvard has publicly committed $58 million toward a new multimodal transit hub, dubbed West Station. Moran and others in the neighborhood argue Harvard can do much more.

It’s a pattern that has played out repeatedly amid discussions about the nearly 150 acres in Allston that Harvard has left to develop, and the related Pike realignment that would finally stitch together a neighborhood cut in half decades ago. Moran pushes for more details, while Harvard argues it is sharing everything it can.

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Moran has been a foil for Harvard’s expansion efforts in Boston almost since he was elected to represent Allston and Brighton in 2005. Like many longtime residents, the Brighton Democrat remembers when Harvard secretly bought up land in Allston in the late 1980s and 1990s, through a separate developer, ostensibly to avoid driving up the price for the university. (Much of Harvard’s excess acreage in Allston was acquired in a public process.)

Moran’s skepticism became a big issue for Harvard as the university sought state legislation to build a big pipe to drain rainwater from the area into the Charles — a $50 million-plus city project that would help Harvard as well as some 1,500 homeowners. As the neighborhood’s state representative, Moran’s support is essential. But he said he refuses to even file the bill until Harvard shares more detailed development plans. That was back in 2019. Moran still hasn’t drafted the legislation.

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Then there’s the Enterprise Research Campus, a 36-acre complex Harvard is planning along Western Avenue. The first phase, a mixed-use project with 900,000 square feet of development, awaits Boston Planning & Development Agency approval. Moran and City Council ally Liz Breadon have yet to endorse it. Lapp offered a long list of concessions in February. But Moran said he still wants to see more — including stronger commitments for open space, affordable housing, and transportation improvements.

Now, all eyes are on transportation: the West Station proposal and the larger Pike realignment, of which the train station is a part.

Back in 2014, state officials envisioned a price tag of $25 million, just for West Station. Since then, that figure has grown significantly alongside ambitions for the station, now seen as a conduit for buses between Harvard’s Cambridge campus and the Longwood Medical Area, as well as a commuter rail stop. Harvard wants to develop land above and around the station, through what’s known as “air rights” (because the projects would span the train tracks and the realigned turnpike). How much Harvard may contribute to the realignment project remains an open question.

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In a letter to Lapp last week, Moran pushed for more information about Harvard’s air rights plans. Size. Density. Type. Anything, really. He said in an interview that he worries Harvard’s discussions with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation may be “gumming up” the Pike realignment plans. (MassDOT, for its part, is preparing to file new plans with state regulators, to reflect the fact the Pike realignment will be at ground level, and is expected to apply for money from the federal government’s new infrastructure package.)

And in his letter, Moran called for Harvard to hold a public meeting before summer begins, and to pursue a “comprehensive urban planning approach rather than Harvard’s current piecemeal approach, which is fragmented and opaque.” A familiar refrain for him.

It took less than two days for Lapp to respond.

In a letter to Moran on Wednesday, she said the conversations with state and city officials focus on preserving the technical viability of any future decking beyond West Station. And she reiterated Harvard’s previous promise of a public planning process for Beacon Park, explaining that any development would be subject to a full city review as well as meetings with a neighborhood group that monitors the university’s plans in Allston.

“We welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss that process, and we are enthusiastic to participate in public meetings of the Harvard Allston Task Force, as you have requested,” Lapp wrote. (The next day, Lapp announced she would be leaving this summer and Meredith Weenick, a former top city financial officer under Mayor Tom Menino who now works at Harvard, would take her place.)

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Moran likes to contrast Harvard’s approach with the construction of the nearby Boston Landing commuter rail station, which sparked a wave of redevelopment after opening in 2017. The roughly $25 million station was entirely funded by New Balance chairman Jim Davis, who has presided over much of that development, including a new headquarters for his shoe company. (One big difference: West Station will cost a lot more than the one at Boston Landing.)

Over the years Moran has been tangling with Harvard, his political stature has grown, from back-bencher to Beacon Hill power player. He is now one of the top members of House Speaker Ron Mariano’s leadership team, and an ally of new mayor Michelle Wu.

In several important ways, Harvard and Moran have interests that are aligned. Both view West Station and the broader highway project as crucial to revitalizing the neighborhood. And both know it’s far better to build the highway decking ahead of time, rather than wait until people are driving on the new asphalt below.

But Moran can’t help but think Harvard knows more than it’s letting on about what it wants to develop there, even after Lapp’s response. After all, Moran says, he’s heard that story before.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.