After last-minute negotiations around a disputed community benefits package, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Harvard University are expected to sign a cooperation agreement this week that will allow construction to start on a new $1 billion Science Complex in North Allston.
Harvard plans to break ground this month and complete the four-building center for stem cell and related research in 2011.
Community members expressed cautious optimism about the modified package.
Language in the agreement "suggests Harvard might do something for the neighborhood," said Brent Whelan, a member of the neighborhood task force that advised the BRA. "What's important is that they see the community's interest as their interest. So it's good that they came part way."
The changes included increased funding for parks, streets, sidewalks, and landscaping in areas around the four-building 589,000-square-foot center, and a pledge of $500,000 for a community needs survey and a "transformational project" in the neighborhood.
That project's outlines are going to be made more clear after Harvard and the neighborhood complete the study. It may be a K-12 school, a community center, a health center, or something not yet envisioned. Neighbors and Harvard representatives are already drafting questions for the survey.
The entire benefits package is pegged at $24 million, said BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.
"It's a very strong agreement," she said. "The basic topics are all here, and it will lead to bigger and better things down the road."
Cathi Campbell, a task force member, said she had high hopes for the agreement.
"Hopefully the transformative project will be developed in the community in the near future," she said. She compared it to the Honan Branch of the public library, built on land donated by Harvard, which extended library services to Allston. The library also contains a popular community meeting space. "That's a beautiful benefit for that area, and it's now the second most frequently used branch in the system."
Harvard spokesman Kevin McCluskey also cited the library branch, along with two playground renovations and funding for after-school programming, as demonstrations that Harvard does not need to be pinned down by legal language to meet its obligations to the community.
"I would hope people would take into account the positive history of engagement and support that has existed between Harvard and the neighborhood for many years now," he said.
Campbell said that although she and other neighbors have "the best of faith" as they move into the next stage - the university's Institutional Master Plan for the North Allston campus and a "master plan" of community benefits - she is hoping for a long-term town-gown engagement.
"I want to know that 50, 100, 150 years from now, people are still benefiting from this," she said.
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