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Globe Editorial

Allston shouldn’t suffer on Harvard’s account

October 28, 2009

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HAVING PURCHASED large chunks of Allston on the sly, emptied storefronts and knocked down buildings, Harvard University has been saying more recently that its endowment woes will be a serious impediment to its plan to build 10 million square feet of new building space in Allston.

That’s no excuse to leave the neighborhood in the lurch. The university is starting to sign interim leases for some of its Allston properties, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said last week. Harvard should move quickly to put properties back into commerce - and should also be willing to sell off properties that it might have preferred to build on. Vast areas of Allston shouldn’t lay fallow because of Harvard’s miscalculation.

Residents have already seen their community divided up by Harvard’s stealth buying tactics. Community leaders have negotiated in good faith with Harvard over the size and character of its development in Boston. The university owes it to them to clean up its own mess.

The city, meanwhile, should hold the university to its moral obligation to Allston. Yet the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which was caught flatfooted by Harvard’s secret purchases, now isn’t doing enough to pressure Harvard or help city residents. Neighborhood blogs are buzzing with copies of e-mails from a BRA project manager who belittled efforts by neighbors to have a say in a controversial proposal to move low-income tenants living near Harvard Business School to a former strip mall farther down Western Avenue.

The residents are justifiably weary. They have sat politely - for the most part - for dozens of meetings showing Harvard’s grandiose plans. Residents have also watched the Menino administration knock itself out trying to redevelop vacant properties downtown, while Allston receives mostly lip service - and more lately a tongue-lashing - from the city’s redevelopment authority.

City and Harvard officials must agree on a new plan to address the vacancies. For Harvard, that means offering leasing options to potential tenants with longer time frames than the 5-10 year period now favored by the university. Harvard officials say they have rented more than 100,000 square feet to nine businesses in the past 18 months despite the poor economy. But key parcels remain empty or underutilized, including a former Volkswagen dealership on Western Avenue and vacant gas station in Barry’s Corner.

Allston activist Karen Smith says the area is starved for stores and services. She sees opportunities within the vacant industrial spaces or underutilized lots for small furniture repair shops, bakeries with attached cafes, exercise studios, music studios, custom framers, computer repair shops, work space for physical therapists, a year-round farmers’ market, and medical supply companies. What she doesn’t understand is why a university with the intellectual resources of Harvard and city administration with vast experience developing Main Street businesses can’t market the properties more quickly or successfully.

Frustration is growing. District City Councilor Mark Ciommo says that if Harvard can’t lease the properties more quickly, it should sell off part of its Allston portfolio.

It is often noted that Harvard plans decades or even a century into the future. Allston residents, however, aren’t in a position to look that far down the pike. And Faust must understand that in this case, what’s good for Harvard is most emphatically not good enough for Boston.

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