HARVARD University boasts strong ideas about how its planned expansion into the Allston neighborhood of Boston will meet the institution's 21st-century needs in the fields of science, health, education, culture, and the arts. The benefits to the university will be abundant, beginning with the anticipated groundbreaking for a new science complex on Western Avenue. It is less obvious, however, what the benefits will be for the people already living in the neighborhood.
Major development projects in Boston typically call for specific measures to lessen the impact on neighbors, often in the form of physical improvements to public spaces or support for local nonprofit organizations. But defining the public benefits in Harvard's case has been complicated both by high levels of distrust and the spectacular breadth of Harvard's plans: 10 million square feet or more of new space to be built over the next 50 years.
It is all but certain that the Boston Redevelopment Authority will give the go-ahead next month for Harvard's first phase of development. The ambitious complex will advance the city's reputation as a world center for life sciences and generate good jobs. The development is certain to elevate Harvard's already lofty teaching and research mission. But Harvard's promise to weave together the campus and the community is less certain. The university must still prove with deeds that it is ready to share the benefits.
"I understand that it's hard to have a trusting relationship," says Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard's chief planner for the project. She says the university is preparing to survey the community about its needs. And she promises that the quality of life for Allston residents will rise with the university's fortunes. But barriers remain. Harvard's decision in the 1990s to purchase the land secretly through proxies still clouds negotiations. A bigger problem, according to some Allston activists, is a city process that approves projects before redevelopment officials sit down to negotiate community benefits. And Harvard misstepped by dragging out promised sidewalk repairs along North Harvard Street.
Some Allston residents want Harvard to fund a community foundation that would be under the direct control of neighbors. But the idea isn't likely to fly with city officials, especially after the abuses in recent years when some South Boston residents tried to shake down waterfront developers. A better idea might be for Harvard to form a partnership with the city to build and operate a community center on Harvard-owned land between Western Avenue and the Mass. Pike to meet the growing demand in Allston for after-school programs, tutoring, and English language classes.
It's not enough just to say that what's good for Harvard is good for the neighborhood. A demonstration would develop trust.