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Allston Planning: Working "Hypotheses"

In a 5,900-word letter to the Harvard community dated October 21, written at the Corporation’s request, President Lawrence H. Summers outlined the “especially fortunate” prospect for campus growth in Allston and propounded “a set of working hypotheses” that might guide academic development there. While noting that much of the 200 acres of land is “highly encumbered,” he forecast “limited building within the next several years” and more development in the next decade. The task will be “uncommonly challenging,” Summers wrote, because making the best use of the property requires thinking “over a longer-than-usual time horizon, a more expansive physical terrain, and a wider span of academic and other domains,” while considering finance, community relations, and “relationships among different parts of Harvard as they exist and as they might exist.”

Summers advanced five "programmatic planning assumptions," characterizing them as "neither immutable nor merely conjectural." The elements, which closely resemble ideas leaked last summer (see "In Allston Planning, the Silly Season," November-December 2003), are:

*Science and technology: Given likely growth in scientific and engineering research, and foreseeable constraints on space in Cambridge (soon) and the Longwood Medical Area (eventually), Allston should become “home to a robust critical mass of scientific activity.”

*Professional schools: The Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the School of Public Health (SPH) would relocate to new, expanded facilities in Allston, where they may collaborate with each other and with the Business School.

*Housing and urban life: New housing units will accommodate graduate and professional students, and perhaps some faculty members; amenities (shopping, parks, transportation) must be provided to sustain a lively urban neighborhood.

*Culture and community: Performing-arts space and museums will both enliven Allston and meet currently unfulfilled needs.

*Undergraduate life. A priority “more speculative than others” is the potential for locating undergraduate Houses close to the Charles River. This would entail relocating athletic fields and facilities, but could free the Radcliffe Quad for alternate reuse or accommodate more College students from outside the United States.

On the basis of these “considered hypotheses, not crystallized decisions,” Summers then established the framework for detailed academic and physical planning—the progression from “an open-ended discussion about multiple possible scenarios to a more focused discussion about…one possible conception that appears to hold particular promise,” and about how to realize that conception. The two principal measures are task forces, with significant faculty representation, to refine academic programs; and the hiring of a planning firm to turn those ideas into a physical development scheme.

University provost Steven E. Hyman will chair a task force on science and technology. Business School dean Kim B. Clark will do the same for the professional-schools working group. Dennis F. Thompson, Whitehead professor of political philosophy and chair of the University Physical Planning Committee, will direct the group examining culture, housing, and urban life. Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean William C. Kirby will oversee work on undergraduate life, including residences and athletic facilities; with the president and provost, he will also convene all the task force leaders and others to set common directions. And vice president for administration Sally Zeckhauser has been charged with identifying the firm Harvard will retain to prepare the Allston master plan.

In a letter to the public-health faculty, SPH dean Barry R. Bloom observed that “a new campus…offers extraordinary possible new roles” for the school in collaborating with Harvard’s life-sciences and social-sciences programs—among possible long-term advantages from relocating if “real and potential problems” can be overcome. GSE dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, communicating with her faculty members, embraced the prospect of a new campus “first and foremost” because of the school’s current space constraints.

Within FAS, which would span not only the Charles River but the business school campus, early reactions were more mixed. Kirby wrote colleagues outlining “exciting opportunities,” particularly in the sciences, while acknowledging difficult issues of planning and coordination yet to come. In discussion at a formal faculty meeting on October 21, Daniel S. Fisher, professor of physics and of applied physics, criticized the process that had led to the preliminary decisions Summers laid out, and raised the specter of damaged, rather than enhanced, scholarly collaboration if Allston science facilities are distant from the current and anticipated Cambridge laboratories. Summers and Kirby responded that early-stage planning was necessarily speculative, and that Cambridge simply could not accommodate anticipated growth in the coming decades. Orlando Patterson, Cowles professor of sociology, wondered whether growth were inevitable and desirable. Summers pointed to new fields of knowledge, such as computational biology, and observed that most professional schools expect to grow by as much as a couple of percent each year, though FAS might not want to pursue a comparable path. In the subsequent faculty meeting, on November 18, Kirby said Allston was important for “a landlocked, space-starved, ambitious” FAS.

Clearly, the discussion the president’s letter was intended to focus has begun. Beyond broad philosophical issues, practical details loom, too. The letter’s penultimate paragraph raises "the prospect of very substantial capital costs." The "formidable financing challenge" carries implications both for extending "existing mechanisms"—apparently a reference to the $500-million levy on the schools’ endowments negotiated by President Neil L. Rudenstine in 2001—and for "broader fundraising efforts in the future." The first of these proposals may spark debate: the half-percent "tax" imposed on endowments beginning in fiscal year 2002 for the Allston "infrastructure fund" met with much opposition from within FAS, which was finally mollified by a promise that the assessment would be strictly limited to five years and $500 million. The issue is now under review in FAS’s resources committee. (For more on the fundraising implications, see "Development Doyenne.") As the opportunity presented by Allston comes into view, the scope of the challenge clearly does, too.

The complete letter is available at Harvard’s general information website for Allston, www.allston.harvard.edu. Comments may be submitted to allston[at]harvard [dot] edu.