Ready for Growth?

Harvard proposes to put shovels in the ground not only to build a new campus in Allston but, far more modestly, to put up a research and administration building at the Arnold Arboretum. The public first heard of the project in 2003, but as this issue went to press, a neighborhood association remained concerned about aspects of it, the job was out for bids, but Harvard had yet to secure permission from the city to proceed.

The proposed 45,000-square-foot plant-science building would sit on the north edge of the 14.2-acre “Weld Hill parcel,” in Roslindale, just across Walter Street from the grounds of the arboretum in Jamaica Plain, both neighborhoods of Boston. Harvard owns the Weld Hill parcel, whereas the arboretum is on land leased by Boston to the University with the understanding that it will be maintained as a public park.

Image courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum
The north façade of the 45,000-square-foot building as seen from busy Centre Street. Its finishes are masonry, wood, and glass. [view larger image]
Image courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum
The rear, south side of the second floor, as seen from the hillside, with research greenhouses, offices, and a lunch room. Some of the arboretum’s administrative staff would leave their present quarters elsewhere to join the molecular biologists and physiologists in the new building. [view larger image]

The arboretum wants the new building, according to Arnold professor and director Robert E. Cook, because “we seek to become a national leader in research on the biology and evolutionary history of trees.” Doing cutting-edge research, he says, will ensure the arboretum’s continuing ability to provide topnotch public education and continue its commitment to horticulture.

Because the Weld Hill parcel is zoned for residential development, Harvard requires the permission of the City of Boston to erect the new building. In March 2004, Harvard notified the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) that it intended to submit a master plan, and the BRA formed a community task force to participate with the arboretum in its planning; after 14 public meetings, the master plan was finally submitted last October. The BRA next gave the public a couple of months to comment on the plan. Eventually, the Boston Zoning Commission must approve or deny the proposed variance from existing zoning restrictions.

Image courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum
The 14.2-acre Weld Hill parcel lies just across Walter Street from the Arboretum’s main grounds and is bordered on the south by residential Weld Street and on the north by the Hebrew SeniorLife facility, built on what used to be Joyce Kilmer Park. The arboretum’s proposed new building, with a project cost of $31 million, would sit on the northwest edge of Harvard’s property, tucked into the side of Weld Hill. [view larger image]

If approved, the master plan would allow the arboretum to build structures totaling 180,000 square feet in floor space on the Weld Hill parcel, although administrators have said they have no plans at present to propose anything more than the research and administration building. Moreover, the arboretum has said that it would confine any future construction allowed within the master plan’s 10-year time frame to the north half of the parcel. Weld Hill itself is in the south half of the parcel.

The Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association in Roslindale had representation on the task force, and its members were frequent attendees at public meetings. The association apparently does not now object to the look or siting of the new building, but wants assurances that part of the Weld Hill parcel will be open space forever. In negotiations, Harvard first said it would refrain from building on the south half of the parcel for at least 25 years, and then, as promised in the master plan, 50 years; finally it upped the offer to 100 years. But the association wants Harvard to agree to a permanent ban. “To date Harvard has refused permanent conservation of any of these 14 acres of beloved Roslindale open space in exchange for a necessary zoning variance,” declares the association on its website. “Instead it has sought to split present and future generations by floating such flimflammery as deferments on the eventual full build-out of the remaining acreage.”

(The master plan does not mention a once-bruited thought of relocating to the arboretum the Harvard University Herbaria, transplanted by a controversial 1953 decision of the Harvard Corporation from the arboretum to Divinity Avenue in Cambridge. Such a move, which would require construction of a substantial building somewhere on the arboretum’s grounds, remains nothing more than a partially considered, distant potentiality.)

The Roslindale-Jamaica Plain community was once stung by the City of Boston through the loss of a park, and the Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association reminds visitors to its website of the episode: “Forty years ago, the City gave the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center permission to build a facility for seniors at the nine-acre Joyce Kilmer Park on Centre Street….After promising to protect the remaining open space at that site, the City later allowed the Rehab Center to double in size in 1973. Most of the remaining parkland was subsequently paved for cars in violation of public deed restrictions on the property.…The lesson of Joyce Kilmer Park is that once an institution gets established in a location, there is little a neighborhood can do to limit its eventual expansion.”

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