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Science center is put on hold

Harvard president says more funds needed to complete Allston site

The site of the Harvard science complex under construction in Allston. It is uncertain when it will be completed. The site of the Harvard science complex under construction in Allston. It is uncertain when it will be completed. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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The giant crater in Allston has given rise to a bleak expanse of concrete and steel, the bones of the science complex envisioned as the anchor of Harvard University’s sweeping expansion across the Charles River. But that landscape might not change for the foreseeable future.

Harvard president Drew G. Faust formally announced yesterday that the university would halt construction of the $1 billion state-of-the-art building in March, to give Harvard time to drum up alternative ways to finance the project.

It might have been worse, said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who met with Faust for nearly two hours Wednesday evening to discuss the site’s future and Harvard’s overall expansion plans in Allston. At one point, he said yesterday, the university considered pulling the plug on the project until its battered endowment rebounded. But Menino said he urged Harvard not to abandon the grand plans.

“One thing I said, I don’t want slums,’’ he said in an interview. “I want progress.’’

The moratorium has been expected since Faust warned 10 months ago that the pace of Harvard’s expansion in Allston, where it owns about 350 acres, would be slowed, given the university’s financial troubles. Amid the recession, Harvard’s endowment has dropped 27 percent to $26 billion.

“The altered financial landscape of the university, and of the wider world, necessitates a shift away from rapid development in Allston and thus requires a simultaneous commitment to a program of active stewardship of Harvard properties,’’ Faust wrote in a letter to the Allston and Harvard communities yesterday.

It remains unclear when the science complex will be completed or what design it will take. In the meantime, university officials are turning their attention to maintaining and renting adjacent vacant properties. Harvard plans to lease an additional 100,000 square feet of property previously reserved for construction support, Faust said.

The uncertain future of the science complex represents a dream deferred for both the university, which planned to relocate its stem cell scientists and other researchers to the site, and for Allston residents, who for years have accused Harvard of leaving the area pockmarked with empty lots and storefronts. It was to have spurred a flurry of economic development and amenities in the former industrial neighborhood.

Sidewalk cafes were to spring up alongside theaters and clothing boutiques. Barry’s Corner, the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue now marked by a vacant gas station, would be transformed into something akin to Harvard Square.

Yesterday’s announcement of further delay to redevelopment added to the uncertainty Allston residents say they feel.

“The neighborhood feels abandoned and ignored,’’ said Harry Mattison, an Allston resident and member of a neighborhood planning task force. “We’re trying to raise families here and to enjoy a halfway decent quality of life while there is blight all over this neighborhood.’’

Menino, who in February sent Faust a strongly worded letter urging Harvard not to abandon its commitments to the city, said the delay on completing the science center is worrisome. But he said he is buoyed by Faust’s commitment to think creatively on how to complete the project.

In a new concession to the neighborhood, discussed during the meeting between the mayor and Faust, Harvard has agreed to convert the current location of Brookline Machine into 10 units of market-rate housing. That plan for the parcel, off Western Avenue, is expected to help break a logjam over the proposed relocation of the nearby Charlesview affordable housing complex.

During their discussions, Menino said, Faust was amenable to his suggestions of alternative financing options for the science complex, including leasing the space from a private developer and buying it back in 15 years.

“It’s the only concept that makes sense in these economic times,’’ he said. “They’re listening now more than ever. I think Drew would like to get it done.’’

Menino said he also urged Faust to consider ways to make Harvard’s existing properties more attractive, such as installing art in the huge windows of a former auto dealership. Harvard is also in discussions with a fine restaurant to lease the gas station space, he said.

“Do it different,’’ he said. “I don’t want that area to look like it’s been abandoned. For too long, that’s what it’s looked like.’’

While the university is aggressively trying to lease its vacant properties in Allston, Faust admits that Harvard must do more. The school plans to invest in building improvements to make them more attractive to prospective tenants, she said in her letter. It will also offer more long-term lease options, up to 10 years, compared with the three- to five-year leases now available.

Since February, when Faust first indicated the possibility that the complex would be delayed, the university has entered into six leases, including with research and information technology firms, movie studios, and a gardening center, said Katherine Lapp, executive vice president of Harvard.

For now, the foundation of the complex is nearing completion. The structure has been brought up to street level, and workers are waterproofing a concrete deck.

The below-grade structure contains 8,000 tons of structural steel and space for laboratory support and power generation.

One option being explored over the next year is co-development of the science complex, as well as other Allston sites, in partnership with a hospital or some other organization for help in financing, Lapp said.

Faust recently assembled a three-member Harvard team experienced in design, urban planning, business strategy, real estate development, and public policy to make recommendations on how to proceed. Peter Tufano, a Harvard Business School dean; Alex Krieger, an urban planning professor in the Graduate School of Design; and Bill Purcell, head of the Institute of Politics and the former mayor of Nashville will help plan for university growth.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.