Paul McMorrow

If Menino can leap, so can Harvard

Harvard’s $1 billion science center in Allston ground to a halt in 2009 and there’s no telling when work might resume. Harvard’s $1 billion science center in Allston ground to a halt in 2009 and there’s no telling when work might resume. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Paul McMorrow
March 11, 2011

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LAST WEEK, Mayor Tom Menino offered a plan to move Boston’s school headquarters to Dudley Square. He said the addition of hundreds of new city workers would help revitalize the Roxbury neighborhood, and that the new office building would allow the city to erase the eyesore around the Ferdinand Building, a historic structure that has sat rotting and vacant for three decades. The move would be paid for by taking on debt and selling city properties.

This plan should sound familiar. It’s essentially the same one Menino had in 2006, when he seized the Ferdinand by eminent domain, and in 2008, when he staged a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site, leveled the rear of the Ferdinand property, and then put the project on hold indefinitely. It seems the only thing that changed is the price tag: It’s now $115 million, up from $80 million.

The timing of Menino’s announcement is intriguing because there’s nothing special or significant or advantageous about recommitting to the Ferdinand and to Dudley Square now, rather than nine months ago, or six months from next Tuesday. It appears to be totally arbitrary. The mayor just got tired of sitting around and staring at a hole in the ground. And that, more than anything, should serve to light a fire under Harvard University, the owner of Boston’s largest stalled and blighted construction project.

Harvard’s vaunted new $1 billion Allston science center was supposed to be the centerpiece of the university’s new, modern face. It was to be the anchor of a gleaming, interdisciplinary, forward-looking empire. But construction ground to a halt in December 2009, and there’s no telling when work might resume. The science center site was supposed to be the opening round in the revitalization of a corner of town that never recovered from BRA bulldozers. Instead, the fenced-in site radiates decay.

Cutting-edge research brings in money, but Harvard isn’t chasing a profit in Allston. All it’s trying to do is strengthen its institutional standing as much as possible, and maybe not be an awful neighbor along the way.

The university is a lot like the city in that respect. The Dudley move isn’t an economic play for Menino and his advisers. It’s about using the city’s economic clout to spur new life in an area of the city that has been chronically overlooked by private investment. It’s about equitable public policy, and furthering the public good.

Those concerns make the timing of the Ferdinand announcement curious, even if the outcome is long overdue. City Hall number crunchers threw the brakes on the Ferdinand project after the economy tanked in 2008. The people who watch Menino’s purse strings were worried that the city would no longer be able to pay for the new Dudley building by selling city property, and they were unwilling to borrow to make the move happen.

The economic outlook hasn’t improved all that much. Unemployment is still worrisome. The city’s budget still balances on a shoestring. There’s no apparent reason for the Ferdinand to move forward today that didn’t exist six months or a year ago. Nothing has changed, except for the political will to stop waiting for a better day.

If Menino can make that leap, there’s no reason Harvard can’t, too. The university’s endowment remains nearly $9 billion shy of its 2008 high-water mark. But the university still has $27.6 billion in the bank. That’s a lot of money — even for Harvard. Meanwhile, Yale is sitting on a $16.7 billion endowment, and MIT manages to get by with just $8.3 billion.

The Harvard Crimson reported last week that the university is quietly gearing up for a capital campaign that would likely blow past the $4 billion mark. The funds would be ticketed for dormitory renovations, and for Allston. It’s hard to see, though, what an extra $4 billion would do that $27.6 billion currently can’t.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.