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John Harvard's Journal

Allston Options–and Actions

September-October 2005

With a near-term goal of establishing an expanded campus footprint across the Charles River during the next decade, Harvard released on June 2 a report outlining options for long-term development in Allston. New York planning firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners prepared the “interim” report, which proposes possible sites for new undergraduate Houses, for laboratories to house novel interdisciplinary science initiatives, and for academic buildings to meet the needs of the graduate schools of education and of public health—all priorities outlined by President Lawrence H. Summers in 2003. The report, which stresses the need for improved transportation among Cambridge, Allston, and the Longwood Medical Area, was intended to serve as a jumping-off point for public discussions that will continue into the fall. In a conference call on the day it was released, Summers, Graduate School of Design dean Alan Altshuler (a member of the University’s Master Planning Advisory Committee), chief University planner Kathy Spiegelman, and David McGregor, managing director for Cooper, Robertson & Partners, answered questions about the report and Harvard’s plans for Allston.

Summers was hesitant to single out any one idea in the consultants’ report, but said he was impressed by the imagination brought to bear on the question of transportation improvements, which he noted would benefit both the wider community and the University.

Harvard's Allston holdings. Areas shaded in yellow represent existing campus and potential sites available within five years. Areas in gray are constrained for five or more years.
Harvard Real Estate and Planning

McGregor elaborated further on that point: “If there is to be science in Allston,” he said, “those scientists need to be able to get between Cambridge and Allston and over to the Longwood Medical Area...as quickly as possible.” To that end, the report suggests a number of public-works-type improvements that would reduce travel time between Cambridge and Allston. For example, “[One] can do a lot of things in the Larz Anderson [Bridge] corridor to improve the flow of traffic, pedestrians, and bicycles,” he said.

Dean Altshuler noted that there are “two ways of dealing with the transportation issue. The first is to make the trip as quick as possible. The second is to make it a much more...pleasant experience. As people walk, ride their bicycles, and take shuttle buses between Barry’s Corner [at the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue] and Harvard Square, what are they experiencing?” One can make the trip “a much higher-amenity experience,” he said. “It can be green, it can be attractive. There can be interesting retail and other sightseeing opportunities along the way.”

In addition to improvements to the Larz Anderson Bridge, planners looked at improvements to the Weeks footbridge, construction of a new bridge from between the two halls of Winthrop House to the Business School, or construction of a tunnel extension from the bus and subway station in Harvard Square under the river to Allston.

Above: View of Barry's Corner at the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue; the Harvard stadium is on the river at left, with the Business School to the right of that. Below: A concept for the addition of pedestrian walkways beside Larz Anderson Bridge. Construction of a canal and pond system would improve drainage of low-lying areas and allow winter recreational activities.

Harvard Real Estate and Planning

Asked about the timeframe for all this, Summers answered, “By no means is this the project of a single decade, or, I suspect, a single generation. None of us will probably ever have a chance to see the completed development.” But he added that he hopes to establish a presence in Allston in the next 10 years. Might a science building be the first to rise as part of an Allston campus? Summers indicated that he would not be surprised if science led the way there.

The reason for locating science in Allston is not only that Harvard is “at or close to the end of its developable space in Cambridge and Longwood,” said University provost Steven E. Hyman in a late July interview, but also because “clearly, some of the most important intellectual problems of our day can’t be addressed in the way we have [traditionally] been configured.” The first new building, for which a site has not yet been chosen, will contain the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, as well as researchers involved in chemical biology and systems biology, elements of which are already well established in departments in Cambridge and at the Longwood Medical Area campus. Fifty or 60 faculty members will be housed in a single huge facility that is not particularly tall, but has a large footprint. “You want to create horizontal spaces” that will bring people together and encourage collaboration, Hyman explained. The University of California, San Francisco, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Stanford have all recently built science facilities on this model (see “Parallel Universities,” March-April, page 54).

The Cooper report has three themes that will guide the team working on the first science building, Spiegelman noted in a separate interview. “The first building should be transformative,” she said; it should connect science in Cambridge and at the Longwood Medical Area to science in Allston, and should be a flexible laboratory building that could evolve over time.

At a retreat held for the scientists who will work in the new building, participants agreed that they wanted every member of their community to be involved in teaching undergraduates, Hyman reported. That had been a concern about locating science space away from existing Cambridge departments. Stem-cell scientist and Cabot professor of the natural sciences Douglas Melton, who has suggested that the teaching labs in Cambridge are not always ideal for pedagogy, argues that there ought to be a teaching lab in the new building set up to facilitate open-ended research, like a real working laboratory.

University officials reviewed architects’ qualifications for the first science building in June, and narrowed the list to four firms during the summer. If all goes well with reviews by the City of Boston and the Allston neighborhood, planners hope to select the architect and site by December.

Three options (top strip) for siting various professional schools. The latter two scenarios would require the acquisition of an affordable- housing complex in the wedge of land formed by the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue. Undergraduate housing (center strip) could replace athletic facilities north of the Stadium, Business School housing to either side of the lawn fronting Baker Library, or graduate-student housing east of the Business School. (A fourth option combining elements of the second and third is not shown.) Science facilities (bottom strip) might be built south of Western Avenue, north of Western Avenue, or diagonally across it at a new intersection that would be formed by a proposed road running north to the Harvard stadium.
Harvard Real Estate and Planning

A task-force report released last year had indicated that Harvard might eventually increase the size of the undergraduate student body by building as many as eight Houses in Allston (and then, perhaps, converting the current Quad Houses into graduate-student housing). But although the report released June 2 shows four potential sites that could accommodate as many as 12 to 16 Houses, it discusses just four new undergraduate residences. “The priority for Harvard College now has to be increasing the faculty-student ratio,” said Summers. “We’ve never contemplated the possibility of growing the College over the horizon of the next decade.”

Those Houses could be built between the Stadium and the river, where they would replace existing College athletic facilities such as Blodgett Pool, Briggs Cage, and Palmer-Dixon Courts, which would be relocated nearby; on the river at the Business School, replacing the student dormitories on either side of the lawn fronting the school’s Baker Library; or at two adjacent sites at the eastern edge of the school’s campus, where they would replace or take over existing graduate-student housing. “No definitive decision has been made that undergraduate housing will be built,” Altshuler emphasized in a July interview. He characterized it as a “very expensive” and “not an urgent” decision. Doing so, however, would contribute enormously to making Allston a fully integrated part of the campus. If such housing were built, said Speigelman, it would go up all at once, as a complex, so that undergraduates would not feel isolated.

The report indicated that the other new academic buildings and the science facilities could rise south of the Business School, either on Ohiri Field and south to Western Avenue, or even across Western Avenue.

None of the options have been combined yet, Spiegelman said, so the potential consequences are not explored in the interim report. Noted McGregor, “If this is going to [work] three decades out, you have to have a plan that, while it sets the public framework and makes an attractive campus, leaves flexibility for different kinds of uses as we go ahead.”

The next steps, said Spiegelman, are “conversations with all the stakeholders, internal and external” at Harvard, in Allston, and in Boston. The fruit of those discussions will be incorporated into Cooper, Robertson’s next draft report, scheduled to be completed this coming spring.