Building a neighborhood from scratch can be tricky. You can’t blame Allston residents for casting wary eyes toward Harvard as the university assembled a vast expanse of land — nearly 150 acres in all — near the Mass. Pike for future development.
This could be the next big thing for Boston, the city’s answer to Kendall Square across the river. All eyes are on Harvard now as it tries to unlock that land’s potential by picking development partners to build out the first 14 acres of its “Enterprise Research Campus.”
Nine teams made the cut for Round 2 and submitted bids to Harvard in time for this week’s deadline.
The finalists represent an all-star cast, many with experience on big-ticket projects, which will come in handy, given the task at hand. They are: New England Development; Wexford Science & Technology and Accordia Partners; Bulfinch Cos. and Harrison Street; DivcoWest; HYM Investment Group; Lendlease Group; Carpenter & Co. and Longfellow Real Estate Partners; National Development and Alexandria Real Estate Equities; and Tishman Speyer with Bellco Capital.
Harvard already has the parameters spelled out in its permit with the Boston Planning & Development Agency: 400,000 square feet of offices or labs, 250,000 square feet for a hotel and conference space, and 250,000 square feet for housing. The details, though, will depend on who wins this contest.
We won’t know the answer to that one until the end of the year. Now that the bids are in, the university-owned Harvard Allston Land Co. will weigh the various teams’ expertise and, of course, what they’re willing to pay for a long-term ground lease.
The university is under pressure to turn these dusty lots into a walkable urban neighborhood, not a walled-off college campus. So Harvard asked developers to go beyond the typical factors to offer plans that boost diversity, affordable housing, public art and open space, and a startup culture.
To some extent, these factors reflect concerns raised by Allston neighbors during the permitting process last year. They fretted about too much open asphalt for parking, for example, and too little green space.
On this, everyone seems to agree: Few want a Seaport-on-the-Charles to take shape, an exclusive enclave of glass boxes. When he ran Massport, Tom Glynn tried to encourage diversity among the port authority’s recent projects on the South Boston Waterfront, most notably with the construction and investment teams for the new Omni hotel on Summer Street.
Now, as chief executive of the Harvard land company, Glynn is taking the lessons from the Seaport and applying them to Allston.
Glynn issued a statement on Friday saying these guiding principles will ensure the 14-acre project off Western Avenue complements the research taking place at the school and integrates into a thriving nearby neighborhood in Allston. Glynn says Harvard officials are pleased that many of the bids include plans and concepts that address these core principles.
These bids are just for 14 acres. But the winner could get the inside track to be part of a much grander vision. Harvard owns another 22 acres waiting to be developed next door, not to mention another 100 in the Beacon Park Yard area southeast of Cambridge Street and possible air rights over the Pike.
Accessing these areas will be tougher. Harvard needs to wait for the state Department of Transportation to straighten out this stretch of the turnpike, a $1.2 billion endeavor that will take the better part of a decade. Also key: the long-awaited West Station, a commuter rail project that Harvard has agreed to help subsidize but needs the state to build.
Then there’s the question of when the next economic downturn will hit, and how that might affect progress.
For the right development team, however, the opportunity to work with Harvard and write the future of this part of the city on a massive blank canvas of land will be worth the challenges.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.