Harvard has proposed to build a 60 foot tall, 130,000 square foot building at 224 Western Ave in Allston. This site is between the Dunkin Donuts and the Harvard Business School's Teele Hall. It also abuts several two family homes on Franklin and North Harvard Street.
Harvard's driving need to build this building is to allow Harvard to renovate the Fogg museum in Harvard Square. The Allston building would house the 200 staff who currently work at the Fogg for the several years that the Fogg would be under renovation. This building would also have storage space for Harvard art that is currently at the Fogg. On the third floor the design has three rooms where art would be on public display. A few very small rooms would have a variety of uses (cafe, gift shop, education).
The community would love to have a museum here in Allston. In 2004, Harvard published an exciting report that identified different ways that Harvard could create a major cultural institution here. This report explained that the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology "lacks sufficient exhibition space to display the wealth of its collections" and less than 1/2 of 1% of its collection is presently exhibited. Regarding the Harvard University Art Museums, the report states that a lack of "exhibition space for modern and contemporary art is a threat to its mission." And finally, Harvard's reports tells us that the Harvard Museum of Natural History "is space-constrained in all elements of its activities—administrative, programmatic, collections and exhibitions—and in terms of public amenities. Current space is inadequate for many activities and is non-existent for others." So Harvard seems to be ready and willing to build museums of special significance.
But as a facility for the general public, Harvard's proposal for Allston is very lacking. Only 10% of the building will be used for public display of art. Storage, administrative, and curatorial spaces will comprise the vast majority of the building. The cafe (20 x 30 feet), gift shop (20 x 25 feet), and public education room (22 x 22 feet) would be nice to have if they were enlarged to be big enough to support meaningful activity. In their current form it is hard to see them having much public value.
If Harvard is going to build the proposed building, the community will be disappointed that Harvard is not willing to build a more public building with more art on display, but the biggest problem with the current proposal is that it puts the building in an inappropriate location. Our neighborhood plan, the North Allston Strategic Framework, was written jointly by Harvard, the City, and the Allston community. In this plan, Barry's Corner, the intersection of Western Ave and North Harvard St, is identified as being the location of 200,000 square feet of neighborhood-serving retail space. Barry's Corner should be a vibrant public hub. It is not the right place for this primarily private building. Harvard has plenty of land in Allston and a building like this should be an interior campus building. Harvard should not be putting private buildings in highly public locations.
This is also the wrong place for a building with a roof garden and ground-level sculpture garden. Both of these could be great at the right location, but this position next to the neighboring homes is not right. Also, the proposed 60 foot height of this building violates the 35 foot limit established in our neighborhood plan. And Harvard's plan at this site has 140 fewer parking spaces than this building needs and Harvard has not presented a complete plan for where it will park these cars.
Alternatively, Harvard could use a bigger site (and Harvard owns several sites that seem to have good potential) to build a much bigger museum. This larger building would be able meet Harvard's needs (storage, offices) and put much more of Harvard's collection on display. This is the building that the community hopes Harvard will build, and we will be particularly eager, if Harvard will consider this option, to work collaboratively with Harvard to find a location in Harvard's existing Allston real estate holdings where this could work. The Harvard-owned sites on Western Ave on either side of Smith Field shown below are two possibilities.
So in summary, the biggest problem is WHERE Harvard wants to build this building. The site is too small and public for the private building that Harvard has proposed. The site is also much too small for a larger, more public museum.
So how did Harvard end up selecting such a bad site for this building? In April 2006 Harvard proposed two projects: a 90,000 sq ft temporary art facility at 1360 and 1380 Soldiers Field Road (these buildings are on both Soldiers Field Rd and Western Ave - they are the Citizens Bank building and the Mahoney's site) and a renovation of the 25,000 sq ft warehouse at 224 Western Ave to create an interim arts and culture space. Last fall Harvard decided it didn't want to build the at the Citizen's Bank building site. The reasons for this have never been made public. Harvard also decided instead of a 90,000 sq ft temporary facility to build a 130,000 sq ft permanent facility. And Harvard decided to drop the interim arts and culture space planned for 224 Western Ave and use the 224 Western Ave location for the 130,000 sq ft building. Harvard has admitted that they never considered other possible locations, probably because they did not want to have to re-file paperwork with the City to use a new site which would delay the project by a few months. So in a rush to build, Harvard is trying to build a cramped, private building in a site where it just doesn't belong.