By Dylan Matthews
The financial crisis is sparing no one, it seems. With Harvard’s endowment down 8 billion dollars and 22 percent from its peak to at most 28.8 billion dollars, , few areas of spending are being spared. FAS has instituted a staff hiring freeze, the university is encouraging staffers campus-wide to retire early, and SLAM activists report that layoffs have begun (see Lucy and Ian’s story, “INSERT HEADLINE HERE”, on page INSERT PAGE NUMBER in this issue). Beyond staffing, the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is being forced to cut back on equipment, and the Economics Department is canceling its junior seminar program.
So it was perhaps inevitable that longer-term projects would take a particularly hard beating when it came time to cut. So it is that President Drew Faust has announced her intention to slow the Allston development. To gauge their reaction, we contacted two Allston community activists, Harry Mattison of the Allston Brighton North Neighbors Forum and Brent Whelan of the Forum and the Mayor’s Task Force on Harvard Allston. What follows is an interview with Mattison, and a statement by Whelan, on the state of play in Allston in 2009.
Dylan Matthews: I wanted to get some reactions from people in the community to the news concerning delaying some of the science construction, since it seems like there’s some level of frustration with that.
Harry Mattison: Yeah, the frustration here is that you had the agreement with Harvard and the city, the North Allston Strategic Framework for Planning, which is a great document that I think describes pretty well the idea that this was going to be a win-win-win sort of development and expansion of Harvard’s campus. Harvard was going to grow institutionally and there were also going to be developments along Western Ave. and North Harvard St., to create this urban Main Street with shops and services and retail and restaurants and cultural institutions like museums. It was going to be a transformation of what has been, for a hundred years, an industrial area that doesn’t have a lot to add to the quality of life in this area. That was going to be transformed in the near future with a wonderful amenity that really added to the quality of life and the local economy, and would just be great for everyone.
A big part of the trouble with what’s happened since that was published in 2004 is that Harvard has just done nothing to advance that vision. So the science complex, which when it gets built will house wonderful research, from a urban design standpoint is better suited for a suburban office park. It’s not an urban building that’s going to encourage a lovely, experience for someone walking around Western Ave. It’s a really unfortunate missed opportunity that Harvard chose to miss, for reasons that never have been explained publicly.
So, Harvard has continued over the past eight to ten years, purchasing an acre of property here and an acre of property there, and in a lot of cases these are buildings that used to have businesses or have something in them that was of some value to the neighborhood. Whatever was there before would be better than the vacant buildings that we have, in a lot of cases, now. They’re Harvard-owned, and Harvard has shown no interest in having any activity at all. Just warehousing a bunch of vacant buildings in our neighborhood.
So, Harvard deciding they don’t have enough money to complete development in Allston will just mean more years of blighted, empty Harvard properties littering our neighborhood. That’s completely contradictory to the ideas in that framework document, that Harvard was supposed to be completely on board with four to five years ago. I think it’s right and fair to expect better from Harvard as a neighbor than to just be a landlord to a bunch of boarded-up, empty buildings in Allston/Brighton.
DM: A part of that compact, from four or five years ago, is that, in exchange for this expansion that Harvard was going to provide benefits to the community, not just new stores, and shops, and urban development, but in allowing access to resources to community members, and reaching out to schools in the neighbor. How do you think they’re faring with that, and living up to that end of the promise?
HM: I wouldn’t describe it as “in exchange for” anything, but that the development of an industry-friendly Main Street is something that should be benefiting Harvard just as much as it would benefit Allston. It would be mutually beneficial outcome, rather than a handout to the people of Allston in exchange for permission to build, if Harvard wants a green, sustainable, urban campus where people walk to work, where there are local jobs and there’s not so much reliance on people driving all over the place, and has that quality of the urban experience which is not something you have if you work at an office park out in Waltham or some place like that.
So the scientists who will be on Western Ave., the ones I’ve talked to, say, “Oh yeah, I do want to have a great neighborhood in a great commercial district that’s interesting and exiting and fun and useful surrounding where I work.” They don’t work in the middle of, basically, a desert where if you want to do something interesting you have to go to Harvard Square, where it’s not a short walk to dinner, or a bite after work, or lunch. They want that to be close at hand as well, because people who work in Harvard Square enjoy that, and that’s what makes Harvard Square interesting. That’s a big part of what attracts people to be a part of that community.
DM: From the perspective of a student, a lot of the focus of the administration, to sell this to us, has been on sustainability: that this is going to be a green campus, that it’s going to be developed in ecologically friendly ways. How much has the community or Allston residents had in that process, or has it been dictated from above?
HM: The community hasn’t had any input into anything. There’s a review process, which mostly means Harvard conducts meeting after meeting and doesn’t do anything at all with any comments or questions that have come from the neighborhood.
But I think this brings up the question: what does a “green campus” mean? If a green campus means high-efficiency, geothermal heat wells, and the engineering and utility-based concept of “green”, then I’m sure Harvard will do a fantastic job. They’ll save a lot of money by using less electricity and energy, they’ll get lots of wonderful PR for doing things like making greenhouse gas agreements like they did with the science complex, they’ll create buildings that have good indoor air quality and other things that make a nice work environment, in an atmospheric sense.
I think a really green campus is one where you have lots of people biking to work and lots of people walking to work. Again, it’s not a suburban office park. I’ve worked in suburban office parks out in Waltham for most of my career, and I’d say no matter what kind of furnace is in the basement, there can’t be a green office park, because people drive to work and that’s what the business school campus is today. Seventy percent of its commuters commute by car. In Harvard Square, I don’t know the exact number, but it’s something like twenty percent.
At Harvard, this shows that when we build the new campus, because yes you can talk about going to work on feet or bike, or on public transportation, but you’re going to have to make some major investments or Harvard’s going to have to really push for the city or the state or the federal government to make major investments. That just hasn’t been there.
There’s the idea of the Urban Ring, of a new bus line being built, which is ten, twenty years off in the future, and it’s not even clear how much that’ll last beyond what already exists for this neighborhood. Things like walking or biking to work, which are certainly much greener than carpooling or taking the bus, Harvard’s plans to increase walking or bicycling are very vague and I don’t think particularly impressive. I think most of what they talk about from a pedestrians and bike standpoint is inside the campus. So once you get to the campus, and if you’re working there you probably drive there, so, okay, I’ve driven to work in the science complex and I can walk to the squash court to go play squash at lunchtime over at the athletic center, and I’m sure they can make a nice, lovely pathway for that. The students at the business school who want to walk from 1 Western Ave. to Baker Library, that’s already a lovely pedestrian environment, and having the new campus would be similar. But none of that really addresses how people get there in the first place.
So when Harvard talks about ten or fifteen thousand new jobs, people working in Allston, that’s fifteen thousands people a day who need to get to Allston. They need to live in Allston, and Harvard hasn’t talked at all about building housing that would be faculty or affiliate housing, a program that’s been quite popular elsewhere. I was talking to someone at Penn who was telling me that twenty-five percent of Penn faculty live in the West Philadelphia neighborhood, which makes biking and walking – and public transportation, for that matter - much more possible.
So if Harvard really wants people getting to campus that way, it needs to have more people that work on the campus living near the campus. If you work in Weyland, you’re going to drive to work. There’s really nothing else that’s going to happen. Of course, not everyone is going to want to live here, but Harvard owns a ton of land, they own dozens and dozens of acres that they have no institutional use for in the next fifteen years, and that was before they even started reassessing things, which would seem like a great place to build modern, attractive, green housing that Harvard faculty, staff, whoever would find very attractive. And if Western Ave. were actually developed into the Main Street it could be, you could say, “hey, there’s great new housing, an exciting, interesting amenity-filled neighborhood with a short walk to work.” Well, that sounds pretty good, but it’s also not something that really ever been a part of what Harvard’s discussed doing in Allston.
DM: Moving back a bit to some of the people who’d be commuting, one of the specific things they’ve talked about recently is that the stem cell lab they’re thinking of moving out of the science complex in Allston, which would take away one of the keystones of that building and an institution that’s part of a growth sector, that would bring a lot of new jobs to the area. Do you have any reaction to that, do you think that’s of a piece with this lack of responsiveness to the community?
HM: The story suggested that the reason the stem cell institute might move to Cambridge is because Harvard was going to stop construction on the science complex. As I said, having Harvard abandon a giant hole in the ground in addition to all of its other abandoned businesses – the abandoned building that used to have a Kmart, or the abandoned building that used to have the dry-cleaner, or the hostel or supply store or many other things in that neighborhood – goes against what Harvard should be doing, which is building and investing in Allston, making Western Ave. a wonderful, attractive, interesting business complex. If Harvard decides to walk away from Allston for ten or however many years it may be, while continuing to have this monopoly real estate stranglehold on Allston, that doesn’t seem like it’s in Harvard’s best interest, and certainly won’t help relations with the community.
It’ll make it harder for Harvard to convince its own people to move to Allston in the future. We saw a few years back the law school say they don’t want to move here, and so why do you want to move to Allston? There’s nothing there. They’ve promised land to the director of the Harvard museums. He was quoted in the Globe a year or two ago calling Western Ave., “Western Siberia”. Well, geez, if that’s how people feel about our neighborhood! They don’t want to come here. They’d rather stay in Cambridge. Harvard Square is nice, Harvard Square has good housing around it, it has a nightlife, it has commerce, it has liveliness, and Allston has…potential, for the next century. In the end, when Harvard’s purchased all this land – which, of coufse, no one’s forced them to do – they have an certain responsibility as a neighbor and as a landowner and a part of the neighborhood, to not just mothball all of this but to actually put it to use.
DM: In the long-term, I get the sense from a lot of activists like yourself, that the goal is to get Harvard back investing, get them building this new, renewable neighborhood in Allston. But in the short-term, it seems – I don’t believe all of their rhetoric on this, but they’re cutting back everywhere, they’re cutting back on Allston, they’re laying people off from janitorial positions. Is there anything you’d like them to do in the midst of the budget crunch to get the Allston project back on track while also responding to the necessities of the financial crisis?
HM: I’d start by asking that Harvard treat people here with more respect. Being able to be honest and forthright with us, and not acting like it’s the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, Microsoft vs. Netscape or something, where there has to be intrigue, and secrets, and information withheld, and acting like you’re dealing with trade secrets. The whole dynamic is completely perverse in that sense, in that Harvard won’t be willing to sit down. So yeah, let’s plan a great, urban neighborhood together.
This is a community that wants Harvard to expand, that wants Harvard to develop the type of neighborhood they told us they were going to develop five years ago, or ten years ago when the secret property act became public and they talked about being a good steward and putting land to its highest and best use. It’s an interesting contrast to Boston College, where the neighbors for the most part don’t want Boston College to build. They want the grassy, open field that’s near St. John’s Seminary to stay a grassy, open field in perpetuity. What we have here is a bunch of rather unattractive, or not particularly great little one-story buildings on Western Ave. that I’d love to see Harvard come in, knock down, and replace with something much more useful and beneficial to Harvard and the city and the community.
You go back to ideas like the fact that Harvard has hundreds of thousands of pieces of art stored somewhere, and one of the wealthiest museum systems in the world. You hear the story at Brandeis, where you have an uproar at the idea that Brandeis might sell these works of art. In a similar way, I think just storing all this art out of public view in a basement somewhere – that’s not what art is for. That art should be displayed, and it can be enriching, and it can be educational, and it could be the treasure that it is, rather than being hidden away it could be shared. It doesn’t hurt the art to share it, and a whole lot of good could come from that. I would say it’s completely consistent with Harvard’s mission to bring that stuff out of the dark and share it and show it and distribute it and let people learn and enjoy it.
So you come to Allston, you have tons of land, and this collection, this knowledge and expertise, and we would hope that Harvard would do the sort of thing that’s been talked about for years: building some wonderful museums, both for the graduate students and art experts inside Harvard, and also for society in general. Harvard has talked in the fairly specific detail about those possibilities, but we haven’t heard anything about that in years. The Art task force report that was released recently was very vague about the possibility of museum construction. It was less specific than the Allston Arts Task Force that former President Summers convened, I think, in 2004. There’s a story in the paper today that Harvard’s going to bring in a couple of visiting artists, stuff like that. It’d be great to see Harvard basically be the anti-Brandeis in this one specific example, and have a really bold and powerful vision for building museums and showing its art, and living up to its potential.
Folks in our community are VERY MUCH hoping construction will not be delayed–we would much rather see a new green Complex, with essential research going on, rather than a hole in the ground, particularly as there were some vague commitments to include public space–atrium, restaurant, maybe some educational displays, etc.–in the street-facing parts of the Complex.
We are also concerned that Harvard follow through promptly, regardless of the construction timetable, on its community benefits agreement, including Library Park and the ongoing expansion of the educational portal, as well as planning for a ‘transformative project,’ i.e. a large infrastructural project for the community responding to its needs. Harvard’s many land purchases in our neighborhood, and subsequent warehousing of that space, have devastated our community, with major job and retail losses, and Harvard needs to redress that regardless of its internal planning and finances.
Whether Harvard uses the Complex for stem cell research or something else doesn’t feel to me like a neighborhood concern (My reading of Prof. Melton’s remarks in the Crimson suggests that the change in plans may be temporary or interim, but I can’t really tell.) We do strongly hope for more use of the Complex rather than less, sooner rather than later: losing 1200 WGBH employees was really bad for local businesses, and we are hoping that Harvard-related activity in Allston will be a springboard for renewal.
Likewise the endowment ‘crisis’ isn’t really a community concern. Harvard apparently budgeted into the future based on Summers’ ‘bubble economics,’ which strikes me as foolish planning. Harvard nonetheless remains the world’s richest university, as far as is publicly known, and I have to believe it has the resources to carry out its intentions for Allston. Those intentions seemed to be under review before the crash in September, and the community really has no role in Harvard’s internal planning.
It is important to recall, though, that much of Harvard’s Allston/Brighton land purchases lie outside the campus Master Plan area, and Harvard has declined to say what its intentions are for those properties. These many acres, west of Barry’s Corner along Western Ave., represent nearly all the developable land in North Allston/Brighton. The City is engaged with the community in making a plan for this area, complementary to the Harvard Master Plan. This was seen as an essential buffer to the campus plan many years ago, and is embodied in the BRA’s Strategic Framework of 2003, to which Harvard agreed in principle. That community plan needs to go forward, and HARVARD NEEDS TO COMMIT IT LAND AND RESOURCES to it, regardless of its campus planning timetable, or any reduction in scope of the Allston campus. This is Harvard’s moral obligation as the developer who bought up (and continues to buy up, despite its ‘endowment crisis’) all the land it could in our neighborhood.
Those of us who live here refuse to see our neighborhood blighted by Harvard’s abandoned properties along Western Ave, and our future held hostage to Harvard’s erratic internal planning. Whatever Arts and Sciences may do or not, Harvard Real Estate is already a major player in our local development, and it needs to be a responsible one.
I personally am gratified by the concept of a ‘green campus’ and greatly appreciated the innovations of architect Stefan Benisch in the Science Complex designs. I do hope that Harvard will see as its mission the greening of the larger North Allston/Brighton community in which it has so heavily invested: from bike and pedestrian networks to home insulation programs, public transit, etc., there are many possibilities, some already on the table. My fear is that community initiatives will look like the easiest parts to cut from any eventual plan, and we are waiting to see Harvard substantiate its loose commitments in this area.