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An accord in Allston: Harvard and neighbors reach deal that will greenlight big development

The university and its long-wary neighbors have reached an agreement, brokered by Mayor Wu, on affordable housing in the first phase of Harvard’s long-planned research campus

Harvard University, Allston civic groups, and the city have reached a deal on community benefits and affordable housing at a large research campus Harvard is planning along Western Avenue.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Harvard University has reached a deal with representatives of the Allston community that will allow the university to finally move forward with the first phase of its ambitious development plans in the neighborhood.

The deal is significant for several reasons. It will allow Harvard to begin the first section of its proposed Enterprise Research Campus along Western Avenue. This first phase — a 900,000-square-foot, multibuilding complex of offices, labs, apartments, a hotel, and a conference center — had been bottled up at the Boston Planning & Development Agency because of opposition over the potential impact on housing costs and other concerns.

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Now, with Harvard agreeing to create more affordable housing, the BPDA’s staff is advancing the project by recommending board approval at its monthly meeting Thursday night. No date has yet been announced to start construction.

The deal also signals a willingness among wary Allston residents and their elected officials to work closely with Harvard as the university embarks on far more ambitious plans to gradually develop the rest of its Allston real estate — more than 100 acres near the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Charles River, including the sprawling former train depot known as Beacon Park Yard. And the accord represents an important signal of Mayor Michelle Wu’s priorities to the broader development community in Boston, including her intention to leverage major projects to create more affordable housing around the city.

Arthur Jemison, the new director of the BPDA, said the agreement contains “compelling public benefits.”

“This is very much emblematic of the kinds of things we think are important,” Jemison said. “It’s also a piece to build on for future work in that neighborhood and beyond.”

Wu began meeting with Harvard and the neighborhood’s elected officials to broker a compromise soon after taking office last November. In those meetings, she made it clear that Harvard and its development partner for the Enterprise Research Campus, New York real estate firm Tishman Speyer, had to do more to address the neighborhood’s affordable housing needs.

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An artists rendering of Harvard's proposed Enterprise Research Campus.Courtesy of Tishman Speyer

Toward that end, Harvard and Tishman Speyer have now agreed to set aside 25 percent of the 345 apartments to be built in the first phase of the project at income-restricted prices, totaling 86 affordable units. That’s up from a previous offer of 17 percent and roughly twice the citywide minimum of 13 percent.

Harvard has already promised at least 20 percent of apartments would be affordable in subsequent phases of the campus, and has said it aims to keep that minimum for the residential projects in Beacon Park as well.

In particular, state Representative Mike Moran and city Councilor Liz Breadon said they were pleased that some of the affordable units will be set aside for renters who earn between 30 and 50 percent of the area’s median income — “deeply subsidized” units, as Moran put it, aimed at individual renters, for example, who make between nearly $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

“That group in particular has been shut out of our affordable housing development process in my whole career,” Moran said.

Breadon added that having a range of affordability levels is crucial, in part because so many residents of Allston and Brighton earn less than 70 percent of the area median income, the standard threshold for the city’s affordable housing requirement. “So many of our residents earn much less than that, [so] having that included is precedent setting,” she said.

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Harvard also increased its pledge for a neighborhood housing stabilization fund to $25 million from $10 million, along with a previous commitment to make an acre of land available to an affordable housing developer for condo construction off Seattle Street. Harvard also committed $2 million toward community planning efforts for its various remaining Allston properties that await development. (Much of Harvard’s Allston development plans hinge on the successful realignment and lowering of a curved stretch of the Mass. Turnpike, a nearly $2 billion megaproject that is still in the planning and funding stages, to make it possible for decks to be built over the highway for air-rights construction.)

“We can’t continue to develop, project by project, without having an overarching master plan,” Breadon said.

Harvard spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke said in a statement that university officials “appreciate all of the work that has gone into advancing this extraordinary project — from the Wu administration, our local Allston-Brighton elected officials, the BPDA, the Harvard Allston Task Force, and the Allston-Brighton community.”

Harvard’s town-gown relations have been put to the test over the university’s commercial development plans in Allston. Many longtime residents have been skeptical of the university for years, dating back to the 1990s after it secretly bought up land through a third-party developer, and they’ve worried that the mixed-income neighborhood’s character could be drastically changed if Harvard’s developments primarily end up serving well-paid office workers and scientists.

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It was a good sign for Harvard’s community relations that president Larry Bacow, who recently announced plans to step down, visited the Allston Civic Association’s 60th anniversary celebration last week. Also in attendance was Meredith Weenick, Harvard’s incoming executive vice president.

Allston civic association president Tony D’Isidoro said he is encouraged by Wu’s eagerness to listen to the neighborhood’s concerns, and is hopeful issues such as transportation and education could be addressed in the second phase of the Enterprise Research Campus, which involves another 1 million square feet of development.

“We’re excited about the future, that this administration will have a clear opportunity to put its stamp on the process,” D’Isidoro said. “There’s an understanding that Michelle is going to give the community a chance to chime in.”


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