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Harvard's inspiration in Allston

Town and gown are doing a rough dance over Harvard's plans to expand in Allston. Building a whole new campus will take decades. But in its early stages, Harvard is planning to build an art museum -- a 135,000-square-foot building at 224 Western Avenue, just west of North Harvard Street. The area, known as Barry's Corner, has a scrappy look now, but the hope is that it will became a vital neighborhood center full of shops, people, and ambiance.

Ideally, the museum will do two things: fulfill the university's academic mission and also serve the public, offering programs and access that delight, educate, and inspire.

But some neighbors are skeptical.

One person mocked Harvard's approach to development at a community meeting Monday night, saying: "We'll let you know what's happening when the building is built."

In the meeting, residents repeated a common theme: the proposed museum is too small and it's in the wrong place.

Harvard's response is that the site is best suited to enhance arts education, enliven Barry's Corner, and provide appealing public programs. Harvard officials also say that the proposed size is right because the university's mission does not include running a museum on the scale of the Institute for Contemporary Art or the Museum of Fine Arts.

Despite the tussle, there's common ground. Both sides agree on adding a museum. But the neighbors are right to ask for more local benefits.

To be fair, Harvard is already proposing a lot, looking forward to hosting students, training teachers, and offering lectures, concerts, and tours. The public would have access to 14,000 square feet of gallery space, a cafe, shop, education room, and a multi purpose room. Proof of the university's public commitment can be found in the community programs offered at its other museums.

But the new museum needs a larger agenda. It has to reach out to residents who may not hear the appeal in an upcoming lecture at the Fogg on Renaissance portraiture. The museum has to create not-to-be-missed programs for families. It has to make neighbors feel welcome. It has to bridge the infamous town-gown divide.

On the regulatory front, the public has until tomorrow to submit comments on the museum to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Neighbors should include detailed wish lists of activities that the museum could offer.

But the more pressing work is for the university and the neighborhood to hash out the brightest possible future for the museum -- whether that's a different site, different programming, or even more collaborative planning that could be a model of town-gown relations for years to come.

Consensus is within reach. And the outcome could be an exemplary partnership.

Correction:This editorial listed an incorrect deadline for submitting public comments to the Boston Redevelopment Authority on Harvard's proposed museum in Allston. The deadline is March 2.