We don’t want another Seaport.
For years, that’s been the rallying cry of some Allston-Brighton residents, who have raised alarms about Harvard University’s massive planned expansion into their neighborhood. This highly vocal set of residents don’t want to see Harvard’s real estate holdings transformed into a pricey community that lacks diversity, much like what happened with the Seaport, once a sea of forlorn parking lots that over the last few decades has transformed into a largely upscale area.
Finally, after long-running and contentious talks, the university and neighbors have reached an agreement for the first phase of Harvard’s plan.
Brokered by Mayor Michelle Wu, the deal’s cornerstone is a significant amount of affordable housing in the 900,000-square-foot mix of buildings that will be constructed on 14 acres near Western Avenue, an area that’s known as Harvard’s Enterprise Research Campus. The development will include offices, apartments, labs, a hotel, and a conference center. Harvard will designate 25 percent of the 345 apartments that will be built in this phase of its project as income-restricted units. That’s nearly twice the city’s requirement of 13 percent, and higher than Harvard’s previous proposal of 17 percent (community groups were asking for a 33 percent affordable housing commitment). Harvard will also contribute $25 million over the next 12 years (up from a $10 million proposal) to establish a neighborhood housing stabilization fund in Allston to increase the affordable housing supply and support affordable homeownership initiatives in the neighborhood. Between 2011 and 2019, the average price of a home in Allston jumped 43 percent from roughly $350,000 to $500,000, whereas the median rent increased 36 percent from $1,200 to about $1,700.
The agreement represents a major compromise, and Wu deserves credit for facilitating it. “The development of Harvard’s land in Allston is of such scale and scope that the impact will shape generations to come — we must get this right for our communities,” said Wu in a statement when the deal was announced. According to the city, the affordable housing commitment from Harvard represents the largest percentage ever in a single project by a private developer in Boston.
“We want a community that may not be exactly like the current Allston-Brighton, it’ll be denser and taller, probably, but also one that houses a lot of different types of people of different income,” said Barbara Parmenter, member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, which is a group of Allston residents and Harvard-affiliated individuals who work with the Boston Planning Development Agency to discuss local projects and their effect on the community. The affordable units in the Harvard project will be set aside for a range of income levels, for families making between 30 and 100 percent of the area median income, which is currently around $126,000 for a household of three.
Harvard also pledged to set aside 20 percent of its enterprise research campus, or three acres, for publicly accessible open space projects, including the creation of an Allston Greenway which will eventually connect to Ray Mellone Park and to Soldiers Field Road. Among other benefits included in the deal is a $1 million pledge from Harvard to pay for a community needs assessment conducted by an independent party, a study that Parmenter highlighted as key for planning future phases of Harvard’s development.
“[The task force] realized that . . . we are not in any way representative of Allston-Brighton,” said Parmenter. Residents are “mostly renters, we’re mostly homeowners; they’re mostly younger people, we’re mostly older people.” An independent assessment of needs will offer a more comprehensive picture of what the community at large wants, not just those who show up for meetings.
Looming over the agreement, of course, is the uncertain future of the state’s long-planned project to straighten and lower the Mass. Turnpike in Allston, which will cost approximately $2 billion. According to the Globe’s Jon Chesto, the megaproject is still in the planning and funding stages. The realignment of the MassPike is crucial to unlocking the potential of the whole area, including Harvard’s holdings, so the sooner the state can move forward on the highway project, the better.
Once the I-90 project is finished, Allston’s future will be largely up to Harvard. After secretly buying up parcels in the 1990s, the university now owns a third of the entire neighborhood. (The 360 acres it owns are more than what the institution owns in Cambridge.) Building on that land will take decades, maybe generations, and it’ll take years to judge whether the city has avoided a Seaport reprise. But this first agreement represents a victory for all parties and a step in the right direction.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.