After Harvard swap, some local reservations

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Thompson
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

Days after Harvard University agreed to relocate residents of a large affordable-housing complex in Allston to a new development farther up the Charles River, some residents expressed concern about a lack of community input in the process and how the project could affect the neighborhood's landscape.

The topic came up about an hour into Tuesday's meeting of the Allston/Brighton North Neighbors Forum, which gathered to discuss community benefits and ways Harvard could integrate its campus with the neighborhood.

Harvard officials say that neighbors have been kept informed during the process. But the details of the housing proposal are likely to become sticking points as the neighborhood group negotiates with the city on a package of benefits to address community needs while the university expands.

Harvard announced on Nov. 29 that it plans to exchange 6.9 acres of land it owns on the south side of Western Avenue, between Litchfield Street and a McDonald's restaurant, for the current Charlesview Apartments complex, situated at the juncture of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue. The site, located at one end of a large section of Allston, was targeted by Harvard as part of its campus expansion.

Charlesview is a 36-year-old, 213-unit housing project for mostly low-income residents. Under the proposal announced last month, the site, which is owned by a nonprofit corporation created by three churches and a synagogue in Allston and Brighton, will be replaced with a complex consisting of 213 units of low-income housing, 69 affordable apartments, and 118 condominiums at market prices.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed; Harvard is required to pay the amount it will cost to replace the 213 relocated units.

Some residents in the area say that a lack of recent dialogue on the specifics of the proposal, which has been in the works for three years, has left lingering questions about how a 10-building complex, including one closest to the river that is tentatively slated to be 10 floors tall, would fit in with the neighborhood.

"There needs to be a whole lot more planning that involves the entire community and the potential new abutters of this development before anyone should say that this is the exact right plan that they want to move forward with," said Harry Mattison, a Harvard Task Force member who said he learned about the agreement in an e-mail from the university.

However, Kevin McCluskey, Harvard's director of community relations, said the university had kept community members updated "on a fairly regular basis."

"This was, in the end, a discussion between two private parties that, of course, has some degree of public benefit and public impact," he said.

Felicia Jacques, development manager for The Community Builders Inc., the nonprofit organization that negotiated with Harvard and will manage development of the new site, said the affordable and market-prices homes would be indistinguishable from each other and blended among the buildings.

She added that the proposal, which the developers plan to file with the city at the start of the new year, calls for significant open space as well as community retail, service, and meeting space on Western Avenue.

Tom Lally, who has lived in Allston for more than 60 years, said after the meeting Tuesday that he is concerned that the university could pay for development by using money that should be set aside for other community benefits. "I don't think it will fit in with the community viewpoint," Lally said, "if they look at this area as their own form of urban renewal."

Mattison said Harvard has plotted its expansion "one project at a time."

To date, he said, the Boston Redevelopment Authority hasn't fully implemented the notion of special study areas that was recommended in the North Allston Strategic Framework For Planning, a 2004 planning document that grew out of an agreement with the BRA and Harvard to engage the community in the expansion plans.

The current Charlesview land at North Harvard Street and Western Avenue, known as Barry's Corner, has been discussed as a potential site for several academic and cultural facilities, including an exhibit space and educational room that could host community members for arts projects. The neighbors forum plans to discuss the proposal on Jan. 8, and organizers said they hope to include representatives from the developer and Harvard in the conversation.

As he moved chairs back in place and cleaned up after the meeting, Tim McHale said he was concerned about the prospect of a high-rise building that could block views of the Charles from the neighborhood.

"The river belongs to the people," he said, "not to the condominiums."

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