The three development teams that just made the finals in Harvard’s Great Allston Chase may be quite different. But they share one important trait: All three want more housing.
The competition has been fierce to become Harvard’s developer of choice for 14 acres the university owns along Western Avenue, across from the business school. This might be the most valuable sweepstakes underway in the city today. Here’s why: Winning this round could put the developers in the front of the line for future work along the vast empty stretches of Harvard land in Allston, currently split by the Mass. Pike and its ramps.
Think Kendall Square, the sequel. Up to 150 acres eventually will be up for grabs, although most of it depends on a long-awaited realignment of the turnpike.
Nine teams made it to Round 2. Now, the number is down to three. The Harvard Allston Land Co. dutifully informed the winners and losers last week. Those left standing: HYM Investment Group; Alexandria Real Estate Equities and National Development; and Breakthrough Properties, owned by Tishman Speyer and Bellco Capital. (Representatives for all three winning teams declined to comment.)
Harvard already has the city’s permission for 900,000 square feet of development on this first phase of what it calls the Enterprise Research Campus: 400,000 for offices and labs, 250,000 for residential units, and another 250,000 for a hotel and conference center. Drawings filed with the Boston Planning & Development Agency show four buildings envisioned along Western Avenue, with surface parking lots taking up nearly half the site behind them.
That said, it comes as no surprise that all three finalists want to build more. After all, who plans surface lots in a prime Boston location nowadays?
Harvard prodded the bidders to heed the cries for more affordable housing that the university regularly hears from Allston residents who are watching their neighborhood change at a rapid clip. The finalists also addressed other guiding principles that Harvard set forth: suggestions calling for diverse project teams, public-realm improvements, and ample space for startups.
These factors will inevitably play an important role in determining who wins this glittering prize next month.
Then there’s the question of money. Even nonprofits with Fort Knox-size endowments expect a return on their investment. Harvard will inevitably weigh what each team is willing to pay for long-term lease rights. A denser project usually means a more profitable one, so it’s understandable why some developers would try to go beyond the initial scope. (Of course, another round of BPDA and neighborhood reviews would be required.)
Tom Glynn, the land company’s chief executive, said in a statement that Harvard reviewers used an “apples to apples” approach to compare the nine finalists. In other words, they were judged on what they were willing to pay for the original 900,000-square-foot project, not by how much they could pack onto the property beyond those parameters.
All three teams are familiar faces in Boston’s development circles. HYM is run by Tom O’Brien, a former city redevelopment chief who is pursuing massive mixed-use projects at the Government Center garage and the former Suffolk Downs track site. (The latter project includes several affordable-housing concessions.) Alexandria, best known around here for its sizable biotech property holdings in Kendall Square, is working with National Development on an ambitious life-sciences project at the GE headquarters site in Fort Point. Tishman Speyer recently developed Pier 4 in the Seaport, and its Breakthrough venture with Bellco this year acquired a lab project near A and First streets, not far from GE.
Allston neighbors will be watching closely to see which of these heavy hitters ultimately wins Harvard’s favor. They’ll also want to know just how well the winner addresses Boston’s housing shortage.
City rules require at least 13 percent of housing units in projects of this scope to be affordable, or some kind of major mitigation payment. (The affordable units would be built on site, in Harvard’s case.)
But state Representative Mike Moran says anything less than 20 percent at the Enterprise Research Campus would almost be perceived as a nonstarter in the community. If anyone can ensure at least one-fifth of a residential project is affordable, Moran says, it’s Harvard.
This wouldn’t be the first time Harvard tackles affordable housing. The university recently replenished a housing fund, committing another $20 million to a program that has helped community-development corporations for the past two decades. The school has subsidized a home ownership program geared for the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods. And it donated a parcel in Brighton not far from Western Avenue for a 20-unit condo project, which will mostly consist of income-restricted units.
It’s still not enough for many Harvard critics. Yes, town-gown relationships have improved in recent years. But many Allston residents still cast a wary eye toward the university. They want to see real progress, not just a token gesture. The stakes are high not just for the three remaining development teams in the hunt, but also for Harvard, to prove it can be done.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.