Harvard Allston Task Force meeting - December 11

It was another interesting meeting on Monday. It started with a presentation from Harvard about the new art building they want to build. For starters, I don't think it should be called a "museum". Harvard described the building as 1/3 public, 1/3 office, and 1/3 storage. But when they got to numbers, they said the 125,000 sq ft building would have ~9,000 sq ft of exhibition space. When I think of a musuem I think about art on display for the public to see in the galleries. If only 7% of this building is going to have art on display then it is really a storage and administrative building with some art on display in front.

Several months ago Harvard announced that this project would be at the Citizen's Bank building on Western Ave down near Toureen Kennels and Mahoney's Garden Center. Since then they have decided that building won't work and they want to do the project at the "Verizon building" next to Dunkin Donuts and across from Smith Field.

As it always seems to be with any developement around here, the first and most obvious problem is a parking problem. Harvard said this building will have 200 employees. Currently in Allston, 60% of Harvard employees drive to work. In the Science Complex proposal Harvard stated a goal of reducing that to 50%. So that is 100-120 cars that need to be parked somewhere. Plus there will be visitors, students, etc. so probably this facility needs to have parking for 150 cars. I don't remember how many parking spaces they said they planned, but it was a lot less than 150. Part of their explination was that they could use parking spaces in the Western Ave Business School lot or maybe the Science Complex garage. But the Science Complex construction won't be finished until a year after the art building opens, and why would anyone drive 1/2 mile when they could park much closer on a neighborhood side street?

Harvard Business School has a building called Teele Hall next door to this site. It has a surface parking lot for approximately 80 cars behind the building. So imagine needed almost twice that much space for the art building's parking. I asked Harvard's planners and architects if they had thought of building a parking garage for 200-250 cars using the space currently occupied by the Teele Hall lot and/or space below the art building. These spaces could be shared by Teele Hall and the art building. They said they hadn't thought at all about the space behind Teele.

Not surprisingly, another issue is building height. The North Allston Strategic Framework for Planning says:
"The Framework addresses height and massing of new buildings to ensure in general the preservation of the traditional character of residential neighborhoods while allowing the kind of significant new development that will bring substantial benefits to North Allston. Thus, west of North Harvard Street the Framework envisions heights of up to 35' on the southern side of Western Avenue"
But Harvard's design for this building has it being 60 feet high. When asked why the building should be so much taller than the NASPF's limit, Harvard's response was something like "We need the space." That's fine, but Harvard also has plenty of other property in North Allston, and maybe some of those sites would be a more appropriate place for a 125,000 sq ft, 60 foot high building that needs parking for 150 cars. I asked if Harvard could do this in two buildings - one for the storage and one for the museum. No, they said, that would be much too complicated. But they do operate out of multiple sites in Cambridge. I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of pieces of art Harvard has in their complete collection, but I don't understand the practicality of having to have them all under a single roof, especially considering that most of them are very rarely seen or accessed.

This leads into another question - is this the most appropriate type of building to put in the middle of Barry's Corner (the intersection of N. Harvard and Western Ave)? Here are some thoughts on Barry's Corner from the North Allston Strategic Plan:

  • Development of Barry’s Corner as a central core, with neighborhood-focused retail as well as some community housing;
  • The four-block stretch of Western Avenue linking Brighton Mills and Barry’s Corner will become North Allston’s retail Main Street, creating a new focal point for the neighborhood
  • Create a main street-like environment with approximately 200,000 square feet of community serving retail and services, with housing, academic, and other uses located on upper floors.
It would be great to have art and cultural institutions in Allston. But there is no accepted master plan for Barry's Corner and this art building will close at 5 p.m. and therefore not do anything in the evening to contribute to a vibrant Main Street. The small gift shop and cafe it will create could be fine, but let's look at what Barry's Corner might look like for the next 10 years:
  • Teele Hall - a private Harvard building
  • This art building - a lot of storage and administrative space with a small gallery
  • Two gas stations
  • 7-11 convenience store
  • Dunkin Donuts
  • Charlesview (for at least the next few years)
  • The site of the Harvard Mail Facility and the other ancillary uses next to Smith Field

Doesn't seem like much of a thriving retail space to me.

There was also discussion about the roof garden that Harvard proposed for above the second floor of the museum. This would be back off the street and could create a privacy problem for the neighbors who live next to this site. The building will close at 5, but if Harvard wants to rent the building for parties and other functions like they do in Cambridge it could be a lot of unwanted noise and light spilling over into the backyards and homes on Franklin, Holmes, and Mead Streets.

Another possible conflict with the NASPF is that the Framework suggests removing Spurr St (the tiny street that cuts behind the gas station from the Dunkin Donuts to in front of Smith Field) and replacing it with a pedestrian walkway. For this to happen, the vehicular access to this site would have to be done through the Teele Hall building.

Harvard estimated that construction on this project would take 1 1/2 years and they hope to start in the Fall of 2007.

The other main topic of the meeting was interim property improvements and uses for Harvard's vacant buildings along Western Ave and elsewhere in the neighborhood. This was an update since the presentation they gave in September. Summary - no new leases have been signed and property improvements have been things like painting and fixing gutters. The plan in September was to have fence removal completed by the end of the Fall, but that has not happened and is waiting for legal approval. They told us that there will be some landscaping done in the Spring, but we shouldn't expect too much because it will only be interim landscaping. Harard couldn't estimate how much money they spent on property improvements in 2006 so hopefully there will be more information on this at the next meeting.

I think the quote of the night was Harvard's comment that they started purchasing land in Allston because they looked at Allston and saw "land not being put to the best use." Wow. I have exactly the same thought when I look at the Harvard-owned land on Western Ave, Holton St, Everett St, etc.

Next meeting of the Harvard Task Force is January 8, 6:30 @ the Honan Library

1 comment:

  1. That's completely different than I pictured the "art museum". I thought they were talking about a real museum, like their Museum of Natural History or the like. It sounds like Harvard really wanted a warehouse to store their collection and added a display room as a consolation.