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Letter to the Community: Update to Allston neighbors (2011)

Dear Neighbors, Colleagues, and Friends:

For each of the past two winters, I have written to you with updates on our plans and aspirations in Allston.

In February 2009, I wrote at a time of economic uncertainty for Harvard and the rest of the country.  I told you then that we expected development in Allston to proceed at a slower pace and announced a rigorous effort to assess options with regard to the University’s overall capital planning and development program.

Nearly a year later, I outlined a path forward in Allston in three phases, beginning with the near-term objectives of property stewardship and community engagement, a mid-term focus on planning and greening, and a longer-term focus on campus development, including development of the science site on Western Avenue, as resources allow.  I also announced the formation of the Allston Work Team, an internal advisory committee comprised of deans and faculty with expertise in design, urban planning, business strategy, real estate development, and public policy.  They were charged with analyzing ways in which the University’s growth needs could be addressed, structurally as well as financially, in a fully integrated vision for Allston.

I write today to report to you on the progress made in each area outlined in last year’s letter.

Property Stewardship

Last December, we focused our attention on the immediate need for property improvements and aggressive leasing of vacant or partially vacant properties.  We made more properties available for leasing, undertook property improvements to increase their appeal to potential tenants, and extended the length of leases from short to longer terms.

These strategies have worked.  In just over a year we have leased all but one of the available, marketable vacancies in our retail properties, signed 11 new leases, and filled more than 118,000 square feet of our vacant commercial space in Allston.  This includes seven new businesses in Allston, as well as the internationally known nonprofit organizations Earthwatch Institute and the Silk Road Project.

Among these new tenants are two restaurants, Stone Hearth Pizza and Maki Maki, which will open later this spring in their respective locations at Barry’s Corner and the Brighton Mills Shopping Center.  And just last week, on Thursday, March 10, we signed a lease with a retail and commercial bakery, Swiss Bakers, which will occupy the former Volkswagen dealership. Taken together, these three new retail businesses will create an anticipated 90 new jobs in Allston.

When Earthwatch Institute, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, moved its global headquarters to 114 Western Ave., it opened new opportunities for the Harvard and Allston communities to learn about current environmental research through visiting scientists, and brought nearly 50 new employees to the former WGBH building.  Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, a nonprofit artistic, cultural, and educational organization that connects the world’s neighborhoods through artists and audiences, has settled into 175 North Harvard Street, with its seven employees.  This renowned organization has committed to creating educational opportunities that will benefit our local communities.

The signing of these leases brings the total number of businesses located in Harvard’s commercial properties in Allston to 59.  These businesses provide employment to nearly 900 women and men—all of whom in turn contribute to the vitality of the Allston community.

In addition to seeking new tenants for leasable properties, we have also looked for creative ways to activate vacant properties to benefit the neighborhood.  One such example is the Harvard Allston Field and Fairway, a batting cage and minigolf facility installed on Western Avenue.  More than 1,300 Allston residents used this facility every month during last summer and fall.  The space also housed an ice rink the previous winter.  Building on the success of those programs, we are now exploring additional links with the Harvard Allston Ed Portal through the development of an “Ed Portal Annex,” described below.

Community Engagement

The Harvard Allston Ed Portal continues to expand and now delivers educational programming to more than 1,200 resident members.  This year, more than 120 young Allston-Brighton residents and students from the Gardner Pilot Academy After-School Program are benefiting from science, math, and writing mentoring at the Ed Portal, led by 24 Harvard undergraduate mentors.

In many ways, the Ed Portal has become a neighborhood hub, and continues to deepen ties with the community.  We look forward to the continued growth of this remarkable program and are working with the Ed Portal Advisory Board to explore ways to expand its offerings, including the development of an annex.  The Ed Portal Annex would provide a safe and fun space for outside-of-school activities that will also give rise to new programming that, in the words of Faculty Director Rob Lue, “nurture the whole child.”

Neighbors of all ages attend the Harvard Allston Education Portal’s Faculty Lecture Series and other public events, such as last October’s “Treat and Greet,” a progressive, activities-based open house hosted by all the residents of 175 North Harvard Street.

Harvard also continues to support other nonprofits in the community.  Just last month, we awarded another $100,000 in Harvard Allston Partnership Fund grants to eight local nonprofits, infusing critical dollars at a time when such organizations are struggling.  Over three years, we have provided $300,000 in grants to 17 local nonprofit organizations that serve this neighborhood.

Planning and Greening

We have made significant progress in both near-term planning—focused specifically on Western Avenue—and on “greening” investments in street trees, landscaping, and larger-scale projects aimed at increasing park and garden spaces in Allston.

Along with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), we are planning a series of public discussions aimed at practical and incremental planning objectives.  This planning focuses on a two-to-five-year timeframe to provide near-term benefits and examine urban design and leasing guidelines. This could include guidelines for street-edge improvements in and around Barry’s Corner and extending along Western Avenue toward the anticipated new Charlesview Apartments.

We believe that these discussions, grounded in projects we anticipate in the coming months and years, will provide tangible near-term results while being consistent with any longer-term path to a comprehensive revitalization of Western Avenue and key locations where campus and community will intersect in the future.

We have made significant investments in landscaping improvements between Western Avenue and the site of our future science development, and have replaced 35 trees along Western Avenue.  We have also constructed “learning gardens” at 175 North Harvard that will provide outside classroom space to Allston children and their Harvard mentors and tutors at the Ed Portal.

We also look forward to the opening of the new tree-filled Library Park behind the Honan-Allston Branch Library this summer, where award-winning landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh has transformed a formerly vacant lot, once home to a cement factory, into an outdoor extension of the library.

Campus Development

The Harvard Corporation and I have met with the Work Team and Harvard’s Executive Vice President Katie Lapp to discuss the team’s progress and preliminary guidance, which we expect to receive as recommendations later this year.  The Work Team has been gathering information from a range of sources both inside and outside the University to help determine the best route to resumed development for the Western Avenue site, which will undoubtedly be tied to one or more science-based uses, and options for development and co-development around that anchor project.  They are also developing recommendations on how our available land resources can be utilized to support the University’s academic needs and future opportunities.

Pending completion of the Work Team process, our academic development in Allston has turned to two Harvard Business School projects, the Harvard Innovation Lab at 125 Western Ave. and Tata Hall.   On March 10, Harvard received approval from the BRA Board of Directors for the Innovation Lab plans, and work on the facility will start immediately.  The Innovation Lab, slated to open in the fall, represents the kind of cross-School, interdisciplinary ventures that we expect to see flourish in Allston over time.  It will foster entrepreneurial activities and deepen interactions among students, faculty, entrepreneurs, and the community.  It also will offer public areas and meeting rooms, as well as business development resources for local and regional businesses, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and other individuals in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood.

Innovation Lab programming will include presentations and lectures for audiences that include University constituencies, small businesses, nonprofits, and neighbors.  The Innovation Lab also supports Mayor Thomas Menino’s “innovation agenda,” aimed at making a shared and interdisciplinary hub of innovation and a “proving ground for novel solutions.”

Ours is a common future.  Harvard is an institution whose vitality depends on new intellectual connections, new spaces in which to work and live, and new ways of engaging each other and our neighbors.  We are working toward that future, and along the way, we will be investing in the health and well-being of this unique, historic neighborhood and the City of Boston.

We understand that we are neighbors in every sense of the word, and that the future of our shared neighborhood requires careful planning based on an understanding of our intertwined needs and expectations.

Thank you.


– Drew Gilpin Faust