Harvard's Western Ave Entrepreneurship Opportunity

We learned yesterday that Harvard will spend $15-20 million to renovate the former WGBH building at 125 Western Ave to create a center for entrepreneurs and innovators. That's a pretty major renovation for a building that the city appraised as being worth $9M. Given the state of the Science Complex, this will be the first project that Harvard will complete on Western Ave and may be the only construction on Western Ave for several years.

So what tone will this project set for Western Ave? The North Allston Strategic Framework and subsequent planning by Harvard, the City of Boston, and A/B residents has called for Western Ave to become a pedestrian-friendly, amenity-rich, lively and vibrant boulevard. Harvard reaffirmed this goal an April 2010 interview with The Crimson:

University Executive Vice President Katharine N. Lapp, who oversees Harvard’s expansion into Allston, said she and the faculty-led work team continue to use the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s 2005 document “North Allston: Strategic Framework for Planning” as a “guidepost.”

She specifically mentioned the plan to turn Western Avenue into the “main street” of the neighborhood.

Obviously that entire transformation can't happen with one building (though at 94,000 square feet, it is not an insignificant space). But if the transformation doesn't start now and with this project, when will it start?

In terms of programming, a relevant model to consider that I mentioned back in August could be Syracuse University's Enitiative and South Side Innovation Center (SSIC) programs. One interesting requirement that shows their local focus is that SSIC requires that entrepreneurs must be committed to business development on the South Side and neighboring communities. I wouldn't expect Harvard to require its innovators to develop businesses in Allston, but finding ways to encourage that sure would be a nice way to help revive our local economy and quality of life.

Another interesting program is the Syracuse Community Test Kitchen, a collaboration that includes Syracuse's Whitman School of Management. Considering the many restaurants in Allston and the challenges faced by these small business owners, here is a program that could have real relevance to our neighborhood too.

The Community Test Kitchen will support new and existing food entrepreneurs with training and guidance to commercialize home recipes. New Entrepreneurs will receive training in the areas of commercialization; from the development process of formulating scratch recipes into full scale-up production formulas, marketing, sales, and distribution. Existing Small Business Food Entrepreneurs in need of growing their business to the next level of profitability will be offered through a variety of business training programs and culinary product improvement Sessions.
The calendar of events at the SSIC shows the depth and extent of the community and university based programming that Syracuse is supporting.

There are other possibilities for physical changes and uses in and around the building that could set the tone for the permeable campus that Chris Gordon promised in 2007. Especially because Harvard is seeking approval for this project without any plan for its many acres of surrounding property, how Harvard chooses to move forward with this project will tell a lot about the future of this campus and community.


  1. Thanks for mentioning the program at Syracuse University. Our entrepreneurship outreach effort is truly a win-win-win situation in that we're able to help entrepreneurs start and grow businesses, we're able to help the south side community to grow much needed businesses, and our students get the chance to work with entrepreneurs and learn what it really takes to launch a business.

    Tom Kruczek
    Executive Director
    Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship
    Syracuse University

  2. I like the sound of Harvard mimicking the Syracuse model. I think they are on a great track.

    A start up culture really benefits everyone from the business district around it that feeds and host meetings to the fact that entrepreneurs can be as philanthropic if not more grass-roots than larger companies. Not to mention, many of the large scale ideas can be fit to help local issues, with everything from LCD screens that display when the next 86 bus is to listing businesses on geo-location apps that help drive business.