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Big-name developers waiting in the wings

'We frequently indicate to [Harvard] that this is a completely viable project and it will add dramatically to that whole area,' said Mortimer Zuckerman. "We frequently indicate to [Harvard] that this is a completely viable project and it will add dramatically to that whole area," said Mortimer Zuckerman.
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / June 17, 2011

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Prominent developers quickly angled yesterday for a role in Harvard’s just-announced plan to build a massive 36-acre life sciences business park in Allston.

Among the interested parties: real estate tycoon Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the chairman of Boston Properties Inc. and a key player in the commercial development success of nearby Kendall Square; Skanska AB, the international construction firm that has built prominent facilities for Harvard; and National Development, which has built office and retail parks around Massachusetts.

Zuckerman said he is familiar with the Allston property because of his connections to Boston and Harvard — he is a donor and a Harvard Law School graduate — and has often talked with university officials about its potential.

“We would be willing to look at it very seriously,’’ Zuckerman said in an interview from his New York office. “We frequently indicate to [Harvard] that this is a completely viable project and it will add dramatically to that whole area.’’

On Wednesday a panel of top Harvard officials recommended the university resume its stalled buildout of a new campus in Allston, with an additional emphasis on drawing commercial development to feed off research in life sciences at its academic facilities. The Allston campus will feature a prominent facility devoted to research in the life sciences and an adjacent enterprise zone dedicated to businesses that want to specialize in the field.

The enterprise zone, now a vacant swath of land, is huge: the 36-acre site could accommodate up to 2.5 million square feet of development in up to a dozen buildings. Harvard officials likened the building and business potential there to Kendall Square, which has become home to many technology and life sciences companies in the shadow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After an unusual period of financial stress tied to the economic crisis, even the mighty Harvard is less able to finance such major development on its own. University officials said the idea to partner with private-sector companies to build out the enterprise park has practical considerations: Developers are better at developing than the school is, and are more likely to have access right now to the kind of financing necessary for such a large project.

The mix of academia and commerce is a departure for Harvard, and would pair a university that methodically acquired land over more than a decade with the fast-paced deal-making world of commercial real estate.

“It’s a great opportunity,’’ said Mike Pascavage, an executive vice president of Skanska’s US commercial development unit. “This is a major new generational expansion of Harvard. To be involved in something like that at any stage is attractive.’’

Skanska’s long relationship with Harvard includes renovations to the Fogg Museum and construction of a new Law School building. Pascavage said Skanska’s ability to “bring capital’’ to a deal makes it an attractive partner for Harvard.

Harvard has not disclosed estimates for building the life sciences research complex, nor have officials said what, if anything, the school would invest in the enterprise area. University officials said that portion of the planning is just beginning, with Harvard president Drew Faust scheduled to review the overall plan and its potential costs with the university’s trustees.

In addition to the research complex and enterprise zone, which was home to CSX railroad for many years, Harvard envisions building a lively commercial retail and residential district further down Western Avenue in the Barry’s Corner area, and additional educational facilities on its other Allston holdings. Importantly, Harvard officials said the individual projects would proceed independent of each other, with separate timetables.

Ted Tye, a managing partner at National Development, said the idea is strong.

“This is a very smart start, and I think they will get some good developers to tackle different parts of the project,’’ he said. “Their part is coming up with the master plan. As far I know they haven’t solicited any developers.’’

Steve Cecil, principal of the Cecil Group, a planning and design firm in Boston that previously consulted with the city on Harvard’s earlier plan for Allston, said university developments often proceed slowly. There are often many parties involved in decisions that range from the best course of development, to financing, to which companies will occupy the school’s property.

Cecil said one benefit for Harvard is that as a nonprofit institution, it is not under the same time pressure as developers to profit on its investment.

“We’re open for business, is really what they’re saying,’’ Cecil said. Harvard “now has the opportunity to be somewhat patient, to make sure this is good, quality development that benefits everybody rather than taking on any development that helps make a quick buck.’’

Zuckerman said Boston Properties has worked extensively with George Washington University to convert property adjacent to its campus to commercial uses, including apartments, retail, and offices. He said George Washington had “done very well realizing the income on their land’’ while getting critical services to make the campus more vibrant.

He noted that under Harvard’s proposal, the Allston campus could become similarly vibrant, with a growing professional population, and amenities such as restaurants and stores to serve it. Building such a thriving community took decades at Kendall Square.

“This is an opportunity to take a long-term view, as MIT did,’’ he said. “Nothing here is going to happen in a matter of a year or two. It’s a long-term development process.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.