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Harvard may turn to partners to revive Allston expansion

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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Harvard University leaders will recommend today that the school take a dramatically different approach to its stalled expansion in Allston by dividing the ambitious vision into smaller projects and partnering with outside developers and investors.

A team that included a majority of Harvard’s deans will urge the university to redesign a signature science complex on Western Avenue, where work stopped last year after the school’s endowment plunged during the recession. Construction there will likely not resume until at least 2013.

But work is already proceeding at other university projects in Allston, including at a facility Harvard has dubbed its Innovation Lab, due to open this fall in the old WGBH studios. It promises to foster connections between students, faculty, and dreamers from outside the school.

Even with the shift in approach, the Allston project retains the promise to be the most significant expansion in Harvard’s history.

The plan, scheduled to be presented today to Harvard president Drew Faust and Allston residents at a community meeting, lacks many specifics about cost, size, timing, and commitments from outside developers. But the recommendations for more modest short-term development could mark a new start for a gritty neighborhood that has been promised a building boom for more than a decade.

“This is saying that these are things we believe are doable,’’ said Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who helped lead the team as it studied the Allston expansion over the past 18 months. “This is actually a wiser way to do planning as opposed to promising an undeliverable future, which was the case a few years ago.’’

The recommendations, outlined for Globe reporters and editors yesterday, include developing an enterprise research campus on a 36-acre swath of Harvard-owned land near the Massachusetts Turnpike. University leaders described that venture as a new Kendall Square, where academic research and business, science and venture capital could thrive in close proximity.

An analysis found demand for a conference center and hotel with 180 rooms. The team also urged the university to create stores, restaurants, day care, and housing for faculty and graduate students near Barry’s Corner, a forlorn crossroads imagined years ago as an anchor for the neighborhood’s long-awaited renaissance. Harvard owns much of the property there. In what university officials said proves their commitment to moving forward, a half-dozen businesses — including two restaurants — are due to open this summer.

The most significant change so far appears to be within the power dynamics of Harvard itself, an institution legendary for its fiefdoms. The team that studied Allston included eight of the university’s deans, a group not accustomed to sharing authority. They made a humbling discovery: The university should look outside its walls to private developers.

“It turns out there are people who do some things better than Harvard, lo and behold,’’ said Peter Tufano, a financial management professor at Harvard Business School who helped lead the team. “We should do what we do best. And we should let other people do what they do best.’’

The addition of private developers would ease Harvard’s financial risk. The life science center — a major anchor of the development — would still be funded by Harvard and donations it raises. But other parcels would depend on outside developers financing housing and buildings, as well as companies that might take long-term leases. An existing example is the Genzyme building along Storrow Drive, on land that Harvard owns.

Harvard has tightened its belt since the financial crisis but still has about $6 billion in debt — the most in its history. Katherine N. Lapp, the university’s executive vice president, said yesterday that Harvard’s finances were improving but still constrained. She acknowledged that the university was unlikely to borrow more for the restarted Allston project, or spend deeply from its own pockets, until at least 2013. And Harvard has adopted a new approach to building, she said: It must raise significant outside money before it starts construction instead of pledging large sums of its own money.

Faust will discuss the recommendations with the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body, and decide whether to move forward. Harvard officials have already shared their findings with elected officials, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“I’m pleased with the plan they are putting together at this time, and now we are going to have to put a timeline on when some of these projects will move forward,’’ Menino said. “I spoke with President Faust just the other day, and she assures me there is a real commitment to getting these sites developed in the very near future.’’

Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, welcomed the recommendation that Harvard “take these plans out of mothballs and off the shelf and put them back into play.’’

The harder sell will be in Allston, where university officials will present their ideas to residents at 6 tonight at Cumnock Hall at the Harvard Business School. For some longtime residents such as Harry Mattison, a new way forward in Allston will be a reminder of how much remains undone.

“At this point, to hear more great ideas from Harvard is really hard,’’ said Mattison, a member of a neighborhood planning task force who has not yet been made aware of the university’s plans. “Harvard has made and broken so many promises and had so many great ideas that then later get thrown into the trash that my neighbors and I have really lost any faith we ever had in Harvard.’’

Allston has long been home to Harvard’s athletic fields and the business school, but the push to build a second campus in Allston began secretly in the late 1980s, when the university hired a developer to buy land along Western Avenue. Harvard revealed the covert expansion in 1997, after spending $88 million for 52 acres in Allston. The university had become the landlord of a supermarket, health clinic, a car dealer, a two-family home, and more.

Harvard came under fire from Allston residents. At the time, Menino chided the university’s “total arrogance.’’ The university sought to make amends. It agreed to pay the city millions in lieu of taxes for its exempt property, and embarked on an aggressive campaign to prove it was a good neighbor.

But the university also kept buying land. It now owns 359 acres in Allston — almost double the footprint of its Cambridge campus. Late in 2003, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers laid out a grand vision: a new Allston campus larger than the university’s main campus.

“The only constraint,’’ Summers told the Globe in 2003, should “be the constraint of our vision and our ideas.’’

The plans matched that boundless ambition: A 250-acre campus teeming with academic facilities, student housing, theaters, and an art museum. It included a pedestrian bridge over the Charles River and burying 800 feet of Soldiers Field Road underground to create a tree-lined promenade along the river. The design even included a new Harvard Square: Barry’s Corner would be transformed into an urban square with shops, restaurants, outdoor cafes, and a plaza.

But before Harvard broke ground, the university began pulling back. New president Faust said in December 2007 that she planned to reexamine the project, exhibiting restraint that some critics said was absent in the headstrong push by her predecessor.

Groundbreaking went forward, however, on the first part of the project: A $1 billion, 589,000-square-foot science complex. Within a year, construction slowed as the recession battered Harvard’s endowment, which plunged by $11 billion, or 27 percent. Harvard announced in late 2009 it planned to stop work.

Today, a tall wooden fence surrounds the stalled construction, walling off one side of Western Avenue. Patches of knee-high weeds mar Harvard’s landscaping along the sidewalk. The site was so still this week that the chirp of crickets could be heard as a rabbit hopped across the concrete, pooled with standing water.

Behind the fence, the site had been capped at ground level. Crews completed a 300,000-square foot foundation. Harvard officials yesterday described the structure as a very short building that some day will form the base of a 500,000 to 700,000-square-foot science center, which would translate into several stories.

A former gas station owned by Harvard is an active construction site with a banner that says, “Coming Soon: Stone Hearth Pizza.’’ A similar sign hangs in the vacant window of another Harvard property, a former car dealership that promises to be the home of Swissbäkers, slated to open this fall.

“Harvard remains committed to Allston,’’ Lapp said. “Allston is part of the fabric of the university. It is not a separate place. It’s as important as Cambridge.’’

Beth Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan.