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."Sounds pretty urgent. Words like "requires" and "needed" and a general sense that this new facility is needed ASAP.
"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."
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.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.
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."