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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

In Allston Planning, the Silly Season

November-December 2003

Expansion of the undergraduate student body, construction of as many as three new undergraduate Houses across the Charles River, and expansion of the law school in Cambridge, not Allston: those were just a few of the surprises reported in a Boston Globe article in early September, leaked from a July 15 meeting of Harvard's deans at which a sweeping set of new ideas for Harvard development was presented by Professor Dennis Thompson, a senior adviser to President Lawrence H. Summers. The leak was clearly unwelcome: the president's office had apparently not shared the new proposal with Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino or Harvard financial supporters.

Illustration by Mark Steele

The proposal envisions a "diverse new Harvard campus in Allston that combines science departments, graduate schools of education and public health, and undergraduate housing" as well as a cultural amenity such as a performance space, reported the Globe. But it left open the question of "whether the new undergraduate housing would constitute an increase in Harvard's enrollment" or whether existing Houses would be moved across the river. Nor were the science departments that might make the move identified. (In a July 18 interview with this magazine, chief University planner Kathy Spiegelman, director of the Allston Initiative, said that the largest players in science—FAS and Harvard Medical School—did not have near-term needs for Allston space, while long-term planning in the rapidly changing sciences is challenging [see "Allston Deliberations," September-October, page 77].)

The Harvard Crimson ran its own breathless report on September 8, complete with a graphic showing that even if Houses on the Allston side of the river occupied the most proximate real estate—thereby displacing athletic fields and facilities—they would be about the same distance from the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard as the Quad residences are now. The paper quoted an e-mail from Undergraduate Council president Rohit Chopra '04 to the effect that "the inmates are now completely in charge of the asylum."

 

All this heat, if not light, surrounding Harvard's Allston aspirations might have been anticipated. The stakes are large, affecting the shape of the University and a goodly chunk of Boston for the next century. Summers made the opportunity for campus growth one of his highest priorities from the moment of his installation. Since the initial land purchases disclosed during the Rudenstine administration, Harvard has bought a quarter-billion dollars' more Allston acreage for University redevelopment. In the absence of any known timetable for release of a definitive roadmap—and given the strong interests involved—rumor abounds, escalating each scrap of news to the status of an approved "proposal" or "plan."

Summers himself had little to say publicly about the news reports. He told the undergraduate paper that Harvard might consider increasing enrollment in the College to accommodate more international students, but that building Houses in Allston was still in the earliest stages of discussion. If the College ever wanted to think about expanding, of course, the possibilities in Allston a decade or more hence would have to be considered. But that one idea set in train a whole host of complications, as does any proposed development scheme, and so illuminates both the large potential and many pitfalls attached to any Allston plan.

Increasing enrollment could be counterproductive at a time when the College is still struggling to improve the faculty-student ratio (a major goal of the last capital campaign and a continuing priority), a number of faculty members have pointed out. But the College does face an undergraduate housing crunch that has existed since at least the 1980s—a problem administrators had hoped to solve partly by encouraging more study abroad (which is preeminently an educational goal.) Building new Houses could alleviate that problem, albeit expensively.

If undergraduates were to migrate across the river, where would they be sited? The Crimson map suggested that new Houses would rise above the ashes of the current athletic complex. But passion for the existing facilities and the expense of rebuilding them elsewhere had previously been raised in argument against displacing them for a professional school, a scenario that then-dean of the College (and former College undergraduate) Harry R. Lewis vigorously opposed in a memo to the University's Allston planners last February. "The location of our athletic facilities is one of our greatest distinctions," he wrote, "and is what separates us, for many potential students," from competitors, where the significant distances to athletic venues result "in a much greater dissociation of the athletic experience from the rest of College life than is felt at Harvard."

The latest proposal led to dark speculation by the Crimson: "FAS—and its donors—might be more receptive to moving athletic space if the replacement were College housing."

 

This much is known. According to informed people, undergraduate housing might be built on the site of the athletic complex; the Graduate School of Education and the School of Public Health—both faced with severe space shortages—would move to Allston; more graduate student housing would be built; a cluster of science facilities, as yet unspecified, would be created; and the Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, and the museums would stay in Cambridge.

The law faculty, though facing its own severe space shortage (which has led to such drastic measures as the closing of a popular campus day-care facility), voted several years ago not to move to Allston. That and the fact that many law buildings would be difficult to reuse for science—the focus of current FAS expansion north of Harvard Yard (where the law school would also like to expand)—strengthen law's case for staying put. FAS does need classroom and office space, space for performing arts, a new admissions office, more recreational athletic space, and lots more library space (many books are now stored offsite in Southborough, Massachusetts), but the administration has so far not addressed those needs.

So the grand chess match proceeds. Not surprisingly, the law school was pleased with the July proposal, while FAS was not, according to a source who attended the meeting. FAS has paid more for the costs associated with acquisition and development of land in Allston than any other faculty, partly under the assumption that it would be the beneficiary in Cambridge of any departing professional schools.

FAS scientists are concerned about dividing facilities between Cambridge and Allston at a moment when interdisciplinary collaborations are rapidly increasing. The impact such a division would have on undergraduate education has also been raised as an important consideration. The University Physical Planning Committee's advisory group on science had earlier determined that such a move would cause divisions between departments, between teaching and research, and between undergraduates and professors, reported the Crimson.

How will this all play out? That is not yet known, but a decision is drawing nearer. According to the Crimson, Summers has told FAS's Faculty Council that groundbreaking in Allston might begin as soon as 2006, and certainly before 2013.

Update: Please see the letter from President Summers regarding Allston, which appeared after this article was reported.