Harvard's new explanation about the status of an Allston museum

Harvard to renovate existing art museums, delaying new Allston site - The Boston Globe

Back in April, 2006 Harvard expressed an urgent need to build a new art building in Allston and agreed with the Boston Redevelopment Authority that review of the project should be fast-tracked through an amendment to Harvard's existing master plan. Harvard proposed renovation and expansion of the bank building at 1380 Soldiers Field Road and in the Institutional Master Plan Notification Form Harvard wrote:
"The proposed interim space for the Art Museums represents a critical first step in a planned sequence of activities making way for the much-needed renovation of HUAM’s existing facilities."

"The Art Museums’ collections consist of approximately 250,000 art objects, although fewer than 1,000 objects can be accommodated at any given time in the public galleries. This shortage of adequate space for the collections, coupled with deteriorating infrastructure and the absence of climate control in many collection areas (both storage and galleries), underscores the need for a major renovation of the existing Museum facilities and the pursuit of opportunities for new space in Allston.

Substantial renovation of the current HUAM facilities requires that the collections and staff be relocated and the existing buildings vacated. Temporary space is needed to accommodate the collections and staff during the renovation period."
Sounds pretty urgent. Words like "requires" and "needed" and a general sense that this new facility is needed ASAP.

Eight months later Harvard had made some big changes in their Allston plans (the project was relocated to 224 Western Ave and would be 40,000 square feet larger) but the need was just as imminent:

"Existing facilities are overcrowded, do not meet professional standards for art museums, and cannot currently be accredited as a professional art museum. HUAM proposes to relocate a portion of its collection and operations to Allston to facilitate the HUAM master plan objectives."
"The Project is planned to serve HUAM at a critical phase in the history of the institution. The historic site at 32 Quincy Street is slated for a long overdue renovation and modernization. The Project will serve as the University’s primary museum facility during the course of the 32 Quincy Street renovation."

In March 2007 when Harvard decided to postpone review of the Art building, the Harvard development team treated it like they were making a major concession to the community. "We would really like to reaffirm a partnership and work with the community,” said Harvard's Allston COO Chris Gordon.

After all this, it is surprising to read in today's Globe that Harvard's Allston art building change-of-heart had nothing to do with community concern and there was no need to build this building in Allston before renovating the Cambridge museums. Harvard is going ahead with the renovation of the Fogg museum on Quincy St in Cambridge with no new facility in Allston. And the reasons Harvard gives for delaying the Allston project are cost, complexity, and timing.

"We just could not make the timing schedule work for both projects, and rather than have the Quincy Street project wait, we decided to give the art museums the go ahead to do the Quincy Street plan," said Kathy Spiegelman, chief planner of Harvard's Allston Development Group.

Cost, HUAM director Thomas Lentz acknowledges, is an issue with the Allston project. So are proposals for a range of other cultural facilities in Harvard's expanded Allston campus. "I think a wider, overriding concern is how it is all going to work in Allston? How do the art museums relate to performing arts facilities or theater facilities or music facilities?" Lentz said. "Those are all big, thorny questions to grapple with."
So when Harvard says something is urgent, is it really? Will we read in the newspaper a few months later that the reasons we were given for Harvard's planning decisions really weren't the true reasons? With this project we now know the answers - 1) No, 2) Yes. For the next project only time will tell.


  1. Anonymous9:55 PM

    I would guess that Harvard's situation changed dramatically between 2006 and 2007: namely, that the University faced far more opposition (much of it mindless) from Allston activists than it had anticipated.

    So no, I don't think Harvard was lying. Faced with a community determined to nit-pick its perfectly respectable proposal to death, Harvard changed its priorities. And we in Allston lost out.

    That's the lesson I draw from their delay. I hope we in Allston don't lose more good projects because some insist they be perfect.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Your post raises a bunch of questions - maybe you would elaborate and we could discuss the particulars of the issues?

    Is it OK for the abutters of a building to be concerned about its size, public use next to their homes, and lack of parking?

    If members of the community think Harvard owns land better suited for a particular project are we allowed to mention that?

    Why do you think 224 Western Ave is a better site than across the street on the several contiguous lots that Harvard owns to the west of Smith Field?

    If community opposition was the real reason for delay, why didn't Harvard say that to the Globe?


  3. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Thanks for your questions: I do think the debate's needed, and this web site's an excellent forum.

    *Is it OK for the abutters of a building to be concerned about its size, public use next to their homes, and lack of parking?

    Definitely -- but this was only one of the issues raised against Harvard, and it was one that Harvard seemed to want to address before they scrapped the project altogether. Other issues were: how much gallery space would be allotted to community use, what percent of the building would be gallery compared to offices, even whether Harvard would be funding arts programs in the Gardner school. Someone -- it might have been you? -- insistently referred to Harvard's building as a "warehouse." I have no doubt that it would serve as a storage facility, but that seemed to me to be Harvard's decision, not ours, to make. To the extent that such complaints and demands put Harvard off the Western Ave. site (which might have been a start to rebuilding Barry's Corner), I think we missed an opportunity.

    *If members of the community think Harvard owns land better suited for a particular project are we allowed to mention that?

    Again, of course it can be mentioned. But in the public meetings I attended, it was not merely 'mentioned' -- it was insisted upon. Are we being realistic when we make demands like that on Harvard?

    *Why do you think 224 Western Ave is a better site than across the street on the several contiguous lots that Harvard owns to the west of Smith Field?

    I don't know why Harvard preferred the 224 Western Ave site - maybe they've got plans for the Smith Field area that aren't yet detailed enough for public discussion. But ultimately it's not my decision where Harvard puts its facilities.

    *If community opposition was the real reason for delay, why didn't Harvard say that to the Globe?

    Because it would be bad public relations to say that vocal concerns had forced Harvard to reconsider the site. I do think Lentz hints at this when he says that Harvard will need to reconsider how it handles art in the area.

    Who knows? Maybe we'll end up with that wonderful imaginary art gallery we'd all like. I just worry that by consistently suspecting the worst of Harvard we are encouraging them to avoid controversy by scaling back their plans.

    We have to recognize that, ultimately, Harvard's facilities are being built to serve Harvard's purposes. Those purposes potentially have wonderful ramifications for our neighborhood -- clean businesses, attractive landscaping, potential for retail growth. But Harvard is not a social worker or a middle school teacher. It's a university. We should be realistic about what we expect them to do, and insist that the city of Boston handle *its* responsibilities (schools, roads, etc).

  4. One of the fundamental questions about the Harvard expansion is the appropriate role for the community to have in deciding what happens with the land that Harvard owns. For institutional expansion there is supposed to be a Master Planning process "to provide for the well-planned development of Institutional Uses in order to enhance their public service and economic development role in the surrounding neighborhoods." (quote from Article 80 of the Boston zoning code)

    The BRA agreed to Harvard skip the normal master planning process for the Art Building. Many people in the community felt was one of the biggest problems with the process of proposing that project. How can anyone understand if that building at 224 Western Ave and Barry's Corner is the right building in the right place when there is no plan for all of Harvard's other nearby property? Also, from the information that Harvard provided, it seemed unlikely that this project would do much to help create the foot traffic and urban vibrancy that the future Barry's Corner should have.
    Harvard's rationale was that the project was so urgently needed that there was no time for a more comprehensive plan. That claim of urgency now seems highly questionable.

    I would respectfully disagree with your statement that "ultimately it's not my decision where Harvard puts its facilities." I think the planning process needs to be a joint effort between Harvard, the community, and the City. A plan that is good for Harvard is not necessarily good for Allston. The basic tenets of zoning law establish the community's collective right to set guidelines and requirements for land use regardless of who owns the property. And Boston has always been a pioneer in zoning - government regulations aimed at imposing communal values on the look and feel of the city.

    Absolutely we should be working towards "that wonderful imaginary art gallery we'd all like". Harvard, with 250,000 pieces of art in its collection, should be able to combine the best aspects of the DeCordova, ICA, etc. to create a facility that is much more than a storage warehouse and office building with a few rooms of art on display upstairs.

    If the founder of the Gap can build a modern art museum with 55,000 square feet of gallery space, why can't Harvard University?

    If Harvard's new campus only serves Harvard then I would consider it a failure. Harvard does so much good for mankind in countless ways. If the Allston campus offers little to people without a Harvard ID it will be the result of an amazing lack of vision, profound negligence, or some other regrettable motivation. I think we can help Harvard raise its sights for the collective good of all.