The September 21 story, Designing new Harvard neighborhoods, concluded with what many people found to be a disturbing statement by Steve Cecil, whose firm The Cecil Group was hired by the BRA to lead the Community Wide Planning initiative.
"Cecil said that the challenge planners faced at the Brighton Mills and the nearby Holton Street corridor was to find a development that would make enough money to warrant tearing down what is now there."First, the existing uses aren't so great that it should be a big hurdle to tear down the old, tired one-story commercial/industrial buildings around Western Ave and Holton Street.
Second, and of greater concern, was the implication that Harvard's development would be predicated on its ability to make a profit. Harvard is a non-profit institution and there are many precedents for Harvard and other property owners to offer below-market rents or otherwise support desirable businesses or to improve local quality of life. For example, Thursday's Globe mentioned the sale of the Harvard Book Store and the "low lease costs" for the independent book store in Harvard Square that has Harvard University as its landlord.
Bruce Houghton is frequenty eloquent on the subject of how Harvard might consider its role and responsibilities in Allston, and this case was no exception:
But residents quickly pointed out that Harvard's objectives in developing in Allston were not just about turning a profit on any particular block, but also about advancing the university's goals, which could include putting staff and faculty housing in nearby neighborhoods, keeping areas abutting its campus particularly livable and vibrant, and providing recreation and open space for students and faculty.
"You can't visualize the Allston neighborhood in a traditional market way," said Bruce Houghton of the Harvard Task Force. "You have to assume that this area is owned by a rich institution that would like a healthy and vibrant neighborhood for the benefit of its mission."
The story in today's paper - Stopping traffic before it starts expanded Harvard - also does a great job of capturing important parts of the September 24 meeting that I described last week. Some of the suggestions made by the Cecil Group and Harvard could be good ones, but "in the limited time allowed" for residents' questions and feedback, we could do little (if anything) more than hear people's quick initial reactions before jumping to another topic.
Would adding at-grade pedestrian crossings to Soldiers Field Road "push traffic into the neighborhoods" as suggested by Paul Berkeley? Maybe, and because the meeting agenda overflowed with presentations spanning the spectrum of transportation issues, we had no opportunity for a thoughtful discussion on the subject. The possible changes of Soldiers Field Road, from the Western Ave/Watertown intersection to the Cambridge Street/River Street Bridge area, is not a trivial subject that can be resolved in a few minutes. What if we had an entire meeting on just this one subject?
Andreae quotes a spokeswoman for the BRA named Jessica Shumaker who tells us that there will "absolutely" be additional time to discuss transportation in 2009. Why should we wait 3+ months to discuss such a crucial topic? As far as I know Jessica Shumaker has never been to a Harvard Allston meeting, and it would be a lot more reassuring if BRA Deputy Director Mike Glavin or Chief City Planner Kairos Shen were making these public statements. According to the Mayor, people in Allston were saying "Thank God you sent Kairos to help us", and it would be great to see Kairos doing more in public to help us instead of quietly sitting in a chair during these planning meetings or not showing up at all.
The BRA has a Barry's Corner presentation scheduled for Tuesday's meeting. We've heard many wonderful-sounding promises and visions for Barry's Corner throughout the years - in some ways it has been the "carrot" dangled in front of the community that will make up for all the inconveniences and negative impacts of Harvard's expansion. The North Allston Strategic Framework described it as "providing common ground for both residential neighborhood and academic community", "a vibrant commercial center", and "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." Hopefully on Tuesday we will see some specific proposals for how this will become a reality in the near future.