In 1989, a Boston developer, known as the Beal Companies, began acquiring a stake in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Allston. Eight years and nearly $90 million later, the firm had amassed a total of 52.6 acres of the neighborhood’s land.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the true financier of the land purchases was revealed: Harvard University, Allston’s neighbor across the Charles River.
A University spokesperson at the time called the move “fiscally prudent” in a comment to the New York Times. The Boston Globe called it “a stealthy land grab.”
Brighton resident Justin L. Brown said Harvard’s secret acquisition of land “sowed a lot of distrust between the residents of Allston-Brighton and Harvard.”
Today, Harvard is the largest landholder in Allston, with 360 acres — roughly one-third of the neighborhood.
These land holdings include campus cornerstones — the Harvard Athletics Complex, the Harvard Business School, the $1 billion Science and Engineering Complex — as well as the development of hundreds of residential units at 180 Western Ave. and 176 Lincoln St. The Harvard Ed Portal has garnered significant praise from residents who utilize its educational resources.
Harvard’s future plans also include the proposed Enterprise Research Campus, a 900,000-square-foot mixed-use development including residential, lab, hotel, and restaurant space.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow says the proposed development will be for Allston residents.
“Our vision for an Enterprise Research Campus emerged from deep engagement with the Allston community, the city of Boston, and many more stakeholders over many years, and our work together will be stronger for it,” Bacow said in July. “The ERC will be for everyone.”
But with Harvard’s forays into commercial development, Brown said the University no longer feels like an “institutional neighbor.”
“Now, Harvard is this enormously influential and powerful institution that’s not talking about residence halls or science labs for its students, but talking about hotels and commercial lab space,” Brown said.
University spokesperson Amy Kamosa wrote in a statement that Harvard’s long involvement in Allston has been characterized by deep engagement.
“We are proud to be part of this vibrant, exciting neighborhood, and benefit immensely from collaborative work with residents, organizations, businesses, elected officials and others through programs, partnerships, public spaces and other shared activities and priorities,” she wrote.
The University’s 10-year timeline for its 2013 Institutional Master Plan is set to expire next year, raising the question of how Harvard will define the next chapter of its relationship with Allston residents.
The ties between Harvard and Allston date back to the neighborhood’s origins.
For more than 160 years, the land now dubbed Allston and Brighton was once part of Cambridge. Following disputes with the Cambridge city government, in 1807, the town known as “Little Cambridge” opted to secede.
The east side of the land officially became its own entity in the late 1860s and was named Allston in honor of Washington Allston — an 1800 Harvard alum.
Between 1875 and 1925, the population of Allston-Brighton grew by over 40,000 people and became a prestigious and developing neighborhood. Around that time, Harvard made its initial expansions into the town when it established Harvard Stadium in 1903 and the Harvard Business School in 1927.
By the second half of the century, the neighborhood began to experience strains still felt today: resident exodus to outer suburbs, a housing crisis, and traffic congestion.
Harvard’s eight-year anonymous property buyup marked a turning point in the University’s positioning in Allston-Brighton. Then-Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino called the acquisitions the “highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.”
But Harvard’s move to purchase land through Beal Companies wasn’t unheard of. Bruce A. Beal, co-founder of Beal Companies, told the New York Times in 1997 that he worked with the Boston Public Libraries in the 1960s to purchase land for them in a strategy similar to Harvard’s.
Lifelong Allston resident John A. Bruno called the purchase a “somewhat disingenuous” — but a “prudent” business move for Harvard.
Harvard’s future Allston purchases were made in its own name. In 2000, the University bought a 48-acre parcel of land, followed up by another 91-acre purchase in 2003.
The University’s vision for its holdings across the river began to crystallize.
In a 2003 open letter to Harvard affiliates, then-University President Lawrence H. Summers unveiled the first public vision surrounding the Allston purchases: a 21st-century expansion of Harvard’s campus. By that point, Harvard had amassed over 200 acres of Allston land.
“The choices we make in the coming years about this extraordinary opportunity will do much to shape Harvard for decades to come,” Summers wrote in the letter.
The campus could include new science and technology facilities, artistic and cultural centers, and new student housing, Summers said.
But Summers’ vision appeared to enter dire straits under new University President Drew G. Faust. The Boston Globe reported in a December 2007 story, titled “Harvard Rethinks Allston,” that Faust was reconsidering major tenets of Summers’ proposed Allston expansion, including the construction of four new undergraduate dorms and the relocation of the School of Public Health and Graduate School of Education.
Still, Faust maintained the University was moving full steam ahead, disputing the Globe’s portrayal in a phone call to The Crimson.
“It’s not a reversal. It’s not a slowing down,” Faust said. “It’s moving to the next stage of a plan.”
But in the two years that followed, Harvard’s endowment plunged by nearly 30 percent amid the Great Recession. The school was forced to halt its expansion plans for the time being.
A decade before the construction of Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex, a Harvard history professor predicted a high-tech Allston campus empty by nightfall.
“You have no problem, I am sure, imagining a science campus that by 6:30 p.m. is abandoned, at least from the outside,” wrote professor Peter L. Galison ’77 in a 2007 Crimson Op-Ed. “The only sounds are those of wind, windshield wipers, a few quiet conversations by the shuttle bus stop, and the rumble of air conditioning systems.”
Galison wrote the piece, entitled “Allston Dreams,” mere months after Harvard released a 74-page master plan in 2007 for a vision of Allston that would soon become derailed by the Great Recession.
Since Galison’s piece, the long-awaited 544,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Complex has opened its doors in fall 2021 to great acclaim from students and some residents.
“It brings beauty, practicality, and sustainability into harmony, a symbol of the University’s commitment to making the world better as we undertake our best work,” Bacow said in a press release months before the facility opened.
Some Allston residents have commended the building’s aesthetic and surrounding greenspace. Others said the SEC’s grandeur felt exclusionary. Residents also linked the SEC to rising housing costs.
The SEC was a major attraction of the University’s 2013 Institutional Master Plan, which was unanimously approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority in October 2013. The IMP contains nine projects totaling nearly 1.4 million square feet, including the construction of a new executive education facility at the Harvard Business School and additions to the Harvard Stadium. The plan also detailed a mixed-use development at Barry’s Corner.
But prior to the plan’s approval, Allston residents raised an array of concerns. The development at Barry’s Corner would cause congestion, some said. Residents also took issue with a lack of specificity surrounding Harvard’s plans for affordable housing and sustainability.
Harvard has taken a number of initiatives to address resident anxieties.
Since 2000, the University has sponsored the Harvard Local Housing Collaborative, intended to bolster the supply of low-cost housing in Cambridge and Boston. In 2019, the University renewed the collaborative, which has invested more than $40 million in the Greater Boston area, according to its website. Harvard also helped establish Allston-Brighton’s “All Bright Homeownership Program” in 2015, which seeks to improve access to homeownership for the neighborhood's residents as outside investors and developers buy up property in the area.
Further, the SEC has been certified LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council — a certification measuring the building’s sustainability.
Despite such efforts, Harry E. Mattison, an Allston resident, said he believes Galison’s “Allston Dreams” have become a reality.
“If what you were thinking is, hey, we're going to build a new neighborhood, or we're going to build a new Main Street, and we're going to create vitality, and we're going to create Boston's next great new neighborhood, then they've completely failed,” Mattison said.
Harvard’s upcoming projects — particularly the much-anticipated Enterprise Research Campus — continue to be a source of concern for some Allston residents.
Plans for the ERC first debuted in 2011, with the BPDA approving a framework for expansion in 2018. The proposed ERC would include a hotel and conference center, office and laboratory space, and residential, retail, and restaurant developments.
In its pitch to residents, the University touted nearly three acres of publicly accessible open space, centering on a public “greenway” plaza and lawn that will connect Raymond V. Mellone Park — named in honor of a former Harvard Allston Task Force chair — to the Charles River.
Bacow said the “vision for an Enterprise Research Campus emerged from a deep engagement with the Allston community” and that the ERC will, resultantly, “be for everyone”.
Some union representatives from Local 26 — representing Boston hospitality workers — voiced support for the proposal due to its affordable housing stipulations and potential to create jobs. Other residents felt the proposal insufficiently addressed their concerns.
During the approval process for Phase A of the ERC development, continuing resident concerns culminated in the formation of the Coalition for a Just Allston and Brighton last August. The advocacy group aims to demand accountability from Harvard regarding resident outreach, affordable housing plans, and sustainability efforts.
Earlier this year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 received a pair of letters — one from CJAB and one from former University Vice President Katherine N. Lapp — which characterized the University’s expansion into Allston in starkly different terms.
In its 19-page letter, CJAB members raised concerns about a future in Allston-Brighton defined by unaffordable housing, barriers to small businesses, traffic congestion, and climate change. Lapp’s letter, meanwhile, expressed Harvard’s desire to turn its purchased properties in Allston into “vibrant, equitable and welcoming” spaces.
Kevin M. Carragee, a Brighton resident and member of CJAB, said the University is not upholding its “social justice mission.”
To quell affordability concerns amid Allston’s housing crisis, Harvard entered a landmark agreement with Allston leaders this past July. Under the agreement, brokered by the Wu administration, the University committed to 25 percent residential units to be affordable within Phase A of the ERC. Harvard also agreed to donate $25 million to establish the Allston-Brighton Affordable Housing Fund and to donate a 0.9-acre tract of land at 65-79 Seattle St. to an affordable housing developer.
The University has also made commitments to expand transportation, including a 2018 pledge of $50 million to the neighborhood’s planned West Station MBTA extension — currently set for construction in 2040. The station is part of Allston’s larger I-90 Multimodal Project, for which Harvard has promised hundreds of millions of dollars of support.
Residents and elected officials from the area have also voiced concern over what they deem insufficient communication from the University.
Kamosa, the University spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard is “committed to ongoing engagement with the community to advance shared goals, and to ensuring our spaces and places are lively, welcoming and inclusive, and that they maintain and enhance the unique creative culture of the neighborhood.”
Still, Brown said opportunities to engage with the University are not accessible to certain residents.
“Attending lots of meetings and understanding how the development and planning processes works creates obstacles for people who don't have the time or the background, and these are members of our community who are often most impacted by development: immigrants, low-income renters, people of color,” Brown wrote in an email.
This coming year, the University could offer a new Institutional Master Plan detailing its current developments in Allston and presenting its next decade-long agenda.
Kamosa wrote that the University wants to contribute to a “thriving, innovative ecosystem” that will change the neighborhood in “profound ways.”
Whether the upcoming IMP will meet the neighborhood’s needs remains to be seen. But Bruno, the Allston resident, is optimistic.
“I see the history, and I see the potential,” Bruno said. “They know everything, whether it’s medicine or engineering or education, financing — they’re the best. Why would we be reluctant to partner with the best?”
Meanwhile, Brown said the future of Harvard-Allston relations relies on the “energized and activated” residents.
“[Harvard] understands that it has an enormous amount of power, and it will use that power,” Brown said. “So what we need to do is build our own power and make sure that we’re taking collective action and speaking with one voice, making demands that Harvard has to listen to.”
—Staff writer Danish Bajwa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.