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Harvard complex looks to go green

But some criticize waiver of review

The state said yesterday that Harvard University has committed to cap greenhouse gas emissions at its Allston science complex beyond national requirements, but officials sparked criticism from some environmental and community groups by exempting the school from an environmental-impact review.

The more than 500,000-square-foot science complex, a set of four buildings expected to be completed by 2011, is the first phase of Harvard's Allston initiative, a 50-year plan to expand the university campus on 200 acres across the Charles River from the main Cambridge campus.

As a part of the agreement announced yesterday, Harvard volunteered to become the first private developer to adhere to a new state environmental policy that requires private entities to evaluate the impact of their projects on greenhouse gases and weigh alternatives to reduce emissions. Harvard is going further than it has to by agreeing to emit 50 percent less greenhouse gases than national standards require, said Ian A. Bowles, the state's secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

Bowles also announced the state's intention to grant Harvard a waiver from undergoing an environmental impact review of the science complex, provided the university can document that it has improved environmental conditions at the site. The waiver would go into effect following a 14-day public comment period.

"The people of the Commonwealth shouldn't be put in a position where they are accepting lax environmental review of major projects that are being played off against some other nominal commitment," said Chris Kilian, a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Massachusetts-based group.

The science complex is too big to avoid such a review, particularly considering previous concerns by state and federal agencies about the effect of development on Charles River pollution, Kilian said.

Bowles said the state concluded that the science complex would have an insignificant environmental impact and pointed out that, as part of its documentation, Harvard must show that its storm-water management system will reduce the flow of polluted water running into the Charles. Under Harvard's proposal, storm water would be collected from the site and rooftops, cleansed, stored in a cistern, re-treated, and distributed to the site for various uses.

"They're not getting away with anything," Bowles said. "It's a net improvement of the area."

The entire Allston campus, including the science complex, will have to undergo a full environmental review at some point, said Christopher Gordon, chief operating officer of the Allston Development Group at Harvard.

Bob Van Meter, executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corp., said his organization was concerned that the state is letting Harvard cut corners because it wants to use the project as a model for environmental conservation. Several community groups wanted an extension on public comment on the waiver, Van Meter said.

"It's going to be a green building," he said. "There are a lot of good things about the project, but Harvard is seemingly so focused on getting the permitting done quickly that they are riding roughshod over the community in terms of the process."

State, Harvard, and city officials disputed that view.

To cut down on greenhouse emissions, the science complex will include glass greenhouses that use natural light and geothermal wells that cut heating and cooling costs. It will also include solar chimneys and roofs painted a dark color, so the complex heats up during the day and cools off at night, Gordon said.

"This commitment will lock in and guarantee that they will have a state-of-the-art green building campus," Bowles said of the greenhouse-emissions cap.

The building will meet Mayor Thomas M. Menino's goal to have green buildings and reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by the year 2050, said James W. Hunt, the city's chief of environment and energy.

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at

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