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Harvard expansion in Allston gets okay from Boston Redevelopment Authority

Posted by Your Town  October 18, 2013 08:56 AM

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(Boston Redevelopment Authority)

The Boston Redevelopment Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to approve Harvard University’s sweeping master plan for expansion in Allston over the next decade.

The 10-year blueprint, first unveiled a year ago, calls for 1.4 million square feet of new development and another 500,000 square feet of renovations across nine projects.

The projects, each of which will need to receive further individual approval before construction can start, include construction of a new 60,000-square-foot, 3,000-seat basketball arena and renovating and expanding the university’s historic football stadium.

The university also plans to build a new 200-room hotel and conference center along Western Avenue; a 300,000 square-foot building with ground floor-retail and institutional use above on the site of the old Charlesview Apartments; and three new business school buildings that will house a mix of academic, office and common spaces.

The other two projects call for renovating two other student housing buildings on the business school campus.

Harvard plans to pay for the projects in a number of ways, including through money collected through the university’s $6.5-billion fundraising effort that launched last month.

“Taken together, and considered alongside the Science building soon to be back underway on Western Avenue and the residential and retail complex soon to break ground at Barry’s Corner, the program represents important progress towards the long-term vision of a more integrated, expansive, and lively presence for Harvard on both sides of the Charles,” Harvard President Drew Faust wrote in a letter to Allston residents Friday.

“I truly believe that no institution of higher education has a more exciting opportunity for innovative growth, in an intellectual and entrepreneurial environment as dynamic as we have in Boston and Cambridge,” she added.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority in a press release that the approved master plan “provides a framework for future development in Allston that will support key academic needs and further knit together campus and community.”

“The plan will expand the University’s academic presence, continue the activation of Barry’s Corner, enhance the public realm, strengthen pedestrian connections, improve circulation, and create new green space and gathering places for the University and the community,” the authority’s statement said. “In addition, the plan includes a long-term vision to guide future campus and community planning in Allston.

Harvard, city officials in Boston and Allston residents are also working to finalize a 10-year community benefits package to go along with the university’s master plan for development.

Earlier this month, the university unveiled proposed a community benefits package worth $38 million. Some residents said they were generally impressed with the proposal, while others said some aspects were too vague.

The master plan’s approval Thursday represented a key step forward in an oft-contentious process that has unfolded over more than 20 years.

And, concerns remain about the 10-year master plan as well as about Harvard’s plans for Allston beyond the next decade.

Neighborhood resident Harry Mattison said the plan was approved by the redevelopment authority without Harvard fully addressing residents’ worries about how the large development plan will impact traffic, parking, retail and public spaces.

Officials from the redevelopment authority and Harvard have promised they will continue those discussions, said Mattison, a member of the Harvard Allston Task Force, a group of neighborhood residents appointed to oversee the university’s development plan.

But, he said he and some others are not optimistic that Harvard will make any substantial changes now that the plan has been approved.

Mattison said he hopes Boston’s new mayor will demand more from Harvard.

“Harvard has an incredible impact on this neighborhood. Some parts are fine,” he said citing the university-run neighborhood farmer’s market he plans to go to Friday afternoon. “But others aren’t at all.”

“We’re going to try and sit down with the new mayor and look at some of the specific projects going forward to figure out how demolition and construction on some of the projects can be done in a way that’s not totally disruptive to the neighborhood,” he said.

“Maybe with some different leadership we’ll get some different results,” he added. “But we’ll see.”

Both mayoral candidates, Martin J. Walsh and John R. Connolly announced this week they would make major changes to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s structure.

Residents in Boston have voiced concerns on numerous occasions that the redevelopment authority has tried to move too quickly at times to approve projects and that the authority does not adequately factor residents' feedback when making decisions.

Mattison said he would welcome any idea that would make the development-approval process in Boston more transparent and more focused on what the neighborhoods want.

He said the current BRA leadership “never created a plan for the neighborhood.”

“Honestly, who’s side are they on. This BRA has not stood up for the interests of the community,” he said.

“That’s not to say that everything that’s happened has been bad for the community, because it hasn’t. But, the conversation has been completely dictated by Harvard wants to do and when it wants to do it.”

“There’s empty property up and down Western Avenue. There’s the massive empty rail yards. Harvard handles development with an exclusive focus on what Harvard thinks is best for Harvard,” Mattison said. “There’s never any public discussion on what does the neighborhood need. What does the community need.”

Harvard began pushing for an expansion in Allston in the late 1980s, and it now owns 359 acres in Allston, nearly double the size of its Cambridge campus. Large swaths of Harvard owned property remain unused.

In late 2003, Harvard envisioned a massive 250-acre campus in Allston that included academic space, student housing, entertainment facilities, and the transformation of Barry’s Corner to replicate Harvard Square.

But in late 2009, Harvard stopped construction on the centerpiece of that plan – a new $1 billion science center – as the university’s endowment dove $11 billion, or 27 percent, during the recession.

The university halted all major development projects for about a year and a half before opening a new laboratory for innovation and entrepreneurship and starting construction on a new building that will be primarily used for housing and is set to open in December.

As those two projects moved forward, Harvard announced it plans to take a dramatically difference approach to expanding in Allston by dividing its once grand vision into smaller projects and working with outside developers and investors in an effort to ease the university’s financial risk.

The university has said it expects to resume work on a scaled-down version of the stalled science complex in 2014 and complete that project, which is not considered a part of the master plan approved this week, by 2017. Harvard plans to move much of its engineering school, currently located on its Cambridge campus, to the planned science complex in Allston.

Another project not included in the newly-approved master plan – to build a 350,000-square-foot retail and residential development on land owned by Harvard in Barry’s Corner – has received city approval and the private developer leading construction expects to break ground soon.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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