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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

South by North Harvard


It takes one to build one. To assemble a 180-foot-high crane behind Widener Library, the crane in the foreground carefully hoisted a 300-foot-long boom from Massachusetts Avenue, where it had been pieced together, into place on high. The July 9 maneuver was reminiscent of a docking in space. Anthony C. Ferranti ’46, observing from his camera store across the street, opined, “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in Harvard Square in years.”

It takes one to build one. To assemble a 180-foot-high crane behind Widener Library, the crane in the foreground carefully hoisted a 300-foot-long boom from Massachusetts Avenue, where it had been pieced together, into place on high. The July 9 maneuver was reminiscent of a docking in space. Anthony C. Ferranti ’46, observing from his camera store across the street, opined, “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in Harvard Square in years.”

Photograph by Jon Chase

Photograph by Jon Chase

Might the University's center of gravity move one day from Harvard Yard south to the Charles River? Perhaps, if some of Harvard's options for academic growth over the next half-century become reality. A University physical-planning committee charged with envisioning Harvard's future has determined that the campus is rapidly reaching the limits of its growth in Cambridge. Turning its sights down North Harvard Street and Western Avenue to the 52 acres Harvard has acquired across the river in Allston, the committee observes, "the size and location of the property, in conjunction with the Business School campus, make it a serious candidate for a new academic precinct."

Though such a sweeping strategy is decades from implementation, it could, if realized, neatly solve three problems. It would relieve pressure on Cambridge; it would help revitalize a jumble of mixed industrial and commercial-use sites in Allston by introducing, not just Harvard's back-office and support operations, but core academic functions; and it would enable Harvard to accommodate new programs and expanding executive-education enrollments without losing vital proximity to the central campus, faculties, and student bodies.

That Harvard might contemplate creating a new campus in Allston was not obvious when members of the physical-planning committee began their work in November 1997. According to chairman Dennis Thompson, the associate provost, they looked first at Harvard's growth in Cambridge during the past century, and found that the University has added an average of 1 million to 2 million square feet of new space per decade. In Cambridge, Harvard has the potential to develop only 1.2 million to 1.7 million square feet more of buildings, space "likely to be largely exhausted within 10 years," says the committee's June 1998 report. As Harvard has grown, so has the residential community around it. Harvard's remaining Cambridge acreage is spread across six sites, mainly on the edges of campus, where, the report says, "area residents feel increasingly anxious about continued physical expansion by the University." The combination of rising real-estate costs, increasing community opposition to further growth, and the lack of large, developable parcels of land proximate to the campus means that the University must take special care to use its remaining Cambridge space wisely.

Given that geographic identity and coherence are hallmarks of Harvard's academic units, "which function as collegial precincts, increasing the opportunities for interaction among faculty and students with related interests," the report notes that "Cambridge currently offers few practical options for physical growth." Any future expansion will require "careful coordination and communication across the various units of the University, and sensitive attention to the needs of the affected communities."

"Allston is the best hope for any major growth of Harvard in the next century," said Dennis Thompson in a recent interview. He says the committee initially took the view that "Allston could house administrative support functions, museum storage, and other services." But they soon discovered, says associate vice president for planning and real estate Kathy Spiegelman, that "all those support functions could fit on a nine-acre site in Allston," as could all the museums (another possible use). But that "would be short-sighted," says Thompson, "because it would fail to realize the incredible potential in Allston both for the community and for Harvard."

The committee then began exploring the idea of a campus in Allston. "We found," Thompson says, "that there is enough space there to put several Harvard schools." He hastens to note that the committee's charge is broadly strategic only--no specific land-use plans or designs have been commissioned. Proposed uses for the sites would originate from the different schools' own academic plans and would undergo community review; they would be subject to Boston's official urban planning and permitting requirements a decade, or decades, hence.

Rather than creating a self-contained campus like the Business School complex, Thompson says committee members have discussed "strategies that would integrate University activities with those of the surrounding community, a mixed-use model that could create a sense of openness and diversity, more like that found in Cambridge around Mass. Ave., with its combination of academic, commercial, residential, and office space." Such a plan would work well in Allston, given the scattered nature of the University's holdings there. But, Thompson points out, it raises the much larger question of how such a campus would relate to the community. "What about housing, retail space, parking, traffic patterns, and transportation? Once you begin to think about the bigger picture, the need to involve the community--city officials in Boston and Allston, in addition to neighborhood groups--becomes essential. We believe their involvement will be mutually beneficial because anything we plan will have to be good for the community as well as Harvard."

Harvard, which was largely vilified in the local press when its Allston land acquisitions were first announced (see "Harvard's New Acreage," September-October 1997, page 70), has sought to engage the strong Allston residential community in several ways. Says Spiegelman, "Part of the acquisition process was to acknowledge that we cared about the health of the residential community, and that some of what we might do as a landowner would not be based solely on Harvard's academic needs, but on our civic responsibility in the larger community. So we redeveloped a shopping center [that was going to lose its anchor store] and, even more significant, we donated a site for the Allston branch library," which had long been stalled for lack of a suitable location. Construction will begin this fall.

Harvard's director of Boston community relations, Kevin McCluskey, sits on the Allston Community Task Force, formed in 1996 and composed of representatives from the Allston community, Harvard, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which reviews and regulates institutional growth in the city. "While Allston residents are concerned about Harvard's plans," he says, "they do see the potential for positive mutual benefit. A very thoughtful, preliminary discussion has been taking place." He notes that, from a resident's perspective, "it doesn't hurt to deal with one owner who has a few dollars in the bank and a history of sound planning and development." Kathy Spiegelman adds, "If you think of how Harvard fits into Harvard Square--the fact that the gates into Harvard Yard are permeable, that there is a give and take with the surrounding area, that when you walk into the Yard there are paths, and grass and trees--you see that there are a whole lot of components of the physical character of the University that would be a tremendous asset to try to bring to this area, which is now a mix of highways and underutilized, chaotically developed land. What Kevin is trying to help us do with the task force is work with the community and figure out what things they value most and how we should treat the edges so that we might develop [them] in the most positive way."

City planners, for example, have long considered the idea that Western Avenue, the main thoroughfare into Allston, could become an attractive boulevard. It is still possible, says Spiegelman, that in addition to an academic precinct, some of the University museums (though not all the art museums) could move to Allston. There is even the possibility that some of Harvard Medical School's research units could expand into the area, an idea that would be compatible with the current Genzyme biotechnology firm in Allston Landing and would allow research growth beyond the Longwood Medical area, where the remaining development parcels are currently being planned for development.

Potentially of greatest benefit to Harvard, and to Allston residents as well, is the fact that the University is transforming the planning process itself. That was one of the planning committee's original mandates. "The current process is even more decentralized than is generally assumed," the committee wrote. "Major projects must indeed be approved centrally, but by the time they reach the body that reviews them, they are generally too far along to be significantly modified. The choice is to approve or reject, and there is little opportunity to suggest alternative approaches or revisions that would fit better with other projects and plans in other schools." The committee identified three major deficiencies in the current process: "the lack of early communication, the absence of a forum for faculty input and deliberation, and the absence of a general University plan." This has meant lost opportunities for interschool cooperation and led to conflicts and more difficult interaction with neighboring communities.

Strategic planning, the new process advocated by the report, emphasizes broad goals and outlines by engaging in a series of "what-if" exercises. Physical planning should "track closely the academic planning process," says the report. The preliminary thinking about Harvard's future presence in Allston is an early example of such strategic work.

What parts of the University might populate the new "academic precinct" in the mid twenty-first century? The School of Education has previously been identified as hemmed in; its buildings--like the Kennedy School of Government's-- occupy less than 200,000 square feet of space--one quarter the size of the Law School complex. But identifying specific candidates for a new campus is an exercise in speculation at this point.

Says Spiegelman, "The idea that we have the potential for as much as 50-plus acres [of growth,] contiguous to what we already own, when we live in an urban area where so much of the property is already developed, is amazing. I don't think there are many institutions of our size or nature that [could say this]. When you think about what is happening intellectually and academically, with the lines between disciplines breaking down and President Rudenstine trying to cultivate interfaculty opportunities to solve research problems and teach in a different way, the idea of being able to stay knitted quite exceptional, and I hope that is the thing that gets people really excited about planning for this new area."