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Globe Editorial

Harvard, private developers should move now on Allston

A fence separates Harvard’s Allston property from the neighbors. A fence separates Harvard’s Allston property from the neighbors. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
July 10, 2011

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AS IT prepares to resume development in Allston, Harvard has two opportunities to enhance its relationship with Greater Boston. The first is by regaining the trust of its immediate neighbors - a matter of concern in Allston, an area that was thrown into limbo when the university abruptly halted work last year on a $1 billion life-sciences center. The second is by broadening and deepening its role as a major cultural and economic engine for the region - attracting enough brainpower, providing enough dynamism, and catalyzing enough spinoff activity to make up for forgone tax revenues and other inconveniences that big universities cause.

The university’s new plan for its vast land holdings in Allston reflects an appropriate concern for both goals, but still risks falling short if the university fails to move quickly enough and doesn’t succeed in persuading enough of its own departments to move to the new site.

Produced by a team of deans and experts with an eye toward reducing costs, the new plan is still quite ambitious. Beyond the eventual resumption of work on the science center and the construction of a long-discussed housing and retail area in the Barry’s Corner area, the plan also calls for a new hotel and a biotech business district to rival Kendall Square. By relying on private developers - to an extent that’s unusual for Harvard - to build out Barry’s Corner and the new business area, the university hopes to get these projects started faster and at less expense to itself.

But Harvard, which remains the wealthiest university in the world, still won’t commit to a speedy resumption of work on the science building, the linchpin of its expansion in Allston. The university quickly scaled back its plans after the plunge in its endowment amid the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009. Harvard officials have indicated that restarting the project will depend on the success of a new fundraising campaign. Construction likely will not resume until 2013.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty continues about which research activities will be housed in that building once it opens. The original vision was grand; not only would it become one of the world’s foremost centers of stem-cell research, but it would also include underground parking, a child care center, and other public amenities. But it’s hardly clear that Harvard’s scientists are eager to leave their existing quarters. And even as the new plan for the building cuts down on nonscientific uses, while expanding lab space to make room for activities that could bring in research grants, university officials are still discussing which departments might move there, and have mused aloud about bringing in medical-imaging activities from nearby Harvard-affiliated hospitals.

All this suggests that, up to now, Harvard hasn’t been confident it can coax enough of its own researchers to move and doesn’t want to force them. But there are great advantages to having top scholars from across the life sciences concentrated in one area. The Allston campus affords Harvard a chance to deliver the economic equivalent of a lightning bolt - not just one more big, solid, respectable building on a sprawling campus with plenty of them.

On the upside, the new plan brings more certainty for Harvard’s immediate neighbors than the long-term vision that the university has previously articulated for Allston. In 2003, then-President Lawrence Summers outlined a broad plan that would provide for not just the science center but also new undergraduate residential houses and facilities for the graduate schools of education and public health. These moves might well have invigorated those institutions, and yielded benefits for the regionwide economy as well, but they would have taken place over the course of decades.

In community meetings, Allston residents - many of whom were enraged when Harvard revealed in 1997 that it had bought up vast areas of their neighborhood without revealing its identity - have expressed the usual concerns about traffic, oversized buildings, and various other potential disruptions that major developments can bring. But residents also fretted that key parcels would lie fallow for years.

The new plan could allay these concerns if neighbors can overcome their suspicion of the private developers whom Harvard wants to tap. With such developers’ involvement, high-quality housing and retail space at Barry’s Corner could become a reality quickly. Some neighbors say they would prefer to deal only with Harvard; others are calling for greater community control over the projects in question. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s powerful planning agency, must solicit neighbors’ concerns and insights and try to address them quickly. An open-ended planning process would work against the goal of bringing Harvard-owned parcels back to life; the community must take seriously its own responsibility to move the process forward.

Under the new plan, other acreage that might have been reserved for future academic growth would be set aside for “codevelopment’’ by science-minded private businesses that want to locate near Harvard. University officials and their real-estate consultants maintain that developers will jump at this opportunity. But for this south-of-the-Charles version of Kendall Square to bear fruit, the university needs to nail down first who will be occupying the new science building. If Harvard doesn’t move quickly and decisively, it’s optimistic to think private developers will.

In the same spirit, Harvard should move aggressively to get construction of the science center restarted, even if it has to lean hard on big donors or even borrow money. A slow timetable at Harvard doesn’t just keep Allston in limbo; it also works to the benefit of the Bay Area and the Research Triangle Park, competitors that gain from the perception of Greater Boston as a risk-averse place where things take forever to get done. In contrast, a strong push on Harvard’s part moves the university, the neighborhood, and and the entire regional economy forward.