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Harvard's $1b complex in Allston awaits green light

BRA meets today; neighborhood perks part of plan

Harvard University's $1 billion science complex, the first major piece of the institution's planned 50-year expansion into Boston's Allston neighborhood, is expected to receive final approval today from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The angular four-building complex, arranged around a courtyard and wrapped in millions of dollars' worth of public improvements for a wary neighborhood, will house Harvard's Stem Cell Institute, the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and related operations.

"This place will be unique - with the highest concentration of stem-cell scientists in the world," said Douglas Melton, codirector of the institute since its inception three years ago. "We'll see other places trying to catch up."

The complex, being shaped since Harvard unveiled its plans in February 2006, will fill what the university says is a need for new life-sciences facilities for research into chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cardiovascular sicknesses.

"This is going to keep us in the forefront," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday. "By the BRA's action today, it will continue our lead in this field and bodes well for our ability to attract other businesses."

Early in 2006, Menino said, "The implications for the well-being of humanity are staggering, and the potential economic spinoff enormous."

The expected approval of the 589,000-square-foot complex - on 8.5 acres with a courtyard and recreational area, three new streets and pedestrian ways, and bridges linking buildings - signals the beginning of the transformation of the north part of Allston from a blue-collar neighborhood to a sister campus that's across the Charles River from the Cambridge-based university.

Harvard's planners engaged Behnisch Architeckten of Stuttgart, Germany, and Payette Associates of Boston to design the complex of irregularly shaped structures grouped to face Western Avenue, across the street from where the old WGBH-TV studios were located.

Ranging from four to seven floors and as high as 126 feet, they are intended to be among the most environmentally friendly structures in the city, according to documents the university filed with the BRA. There will be parking for 500 cars, retail space, an auditorium, a cafeteria, and enclosed garden areas. A 2007 groundbreaking is planned.

Also expected to be approved today are at least $25 million worth of street and public space improvements in Allston, including a park at the Honan Allston Library - all to be funded by Harvard.

The complex is being approved in advance of a master plan for Harvard's Allston land and will be subject to an agreement with a neighborhood task force about construction details.

"We think that the significant issues have been handled, but there are a number of things we want to continue to dialogue with the BRA and Harvard about," said Ray Mellone, chairman of the Mayor's Harvard Allston Task Force, a neighborhood group, which voted last week to support the Harvard buildings and related improvements.

"It wasn't to the satisfaction of what you might say are the purists," Mellone said, but "It's way beyond the experts or anybody including the BRA to figure this out all at once."

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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