Campus & Community

Q&A on Harvard’s Allston plan

8 min read

Executive VP Katherine Lapp focuses on future opportunities

In a letter to the Allston community sent earlier today, Harvard President Drew Faust outlined the University’s path forward for its presence in Allston. Harvard will, as has been anticipated, pause construction of the Allston Science Complex at the end of the current construction phase in roughly four months, and will approach its next steps in Allston in three stages: property stewardship and community engagement; greening and planning; and, as resources allow, campus development. Faust also announced co-chairs of a new faculty-led work team that will consider strategies and opportunities for development in Allston, under the direction of Executive Vice President Katherine Lapp. The Gazette sat down with Lapp to learn more about what’s on the drawing boards:

Gazette: What’s happening with the Allston Science Complex?

Lapp: Last February, President Faust indicated that we were slowing down construction on the Allston Science Complex site to assess what options we might have, given the turmoil in the financial markets, and the University’s near-term space needs. The Harvard Corporation voted Monday [Dec. 7] to pause construction at the end of the current phase, and to pursue later phases after we’ve gotten advice on possible alternative approaches to completion, and perhaps changes to the current design. We expect to take the next year to look at possible opportunities, including co-development with private partners or other institutional partners that may make sense for that site, as well as for other Allston sites that Harvard owns.

Gazette: What do you mean by “pausing” construction?

Lapp: Right now, we’re at basically 93 percent completion of a ground-level structure. We’ve invested more than 8,000 tons of structural steel in the foundation, which encompasses several below-grade unfinished spaces meant for laboratory support, as well as power generation and underground parking. This first phase of the Science Complex will be completed in March. This is a natural point at which to pause the project. This delay gives us an opportunity, prior to pursuing the next phase, to make sure we understand the University’s current needs for space. It also allows us to consider creative opportunities for how we might pursue that space with others through co-development.

President Faust has established a work team, co-chaired by three members of our faculty with expertise in business strategy, planning, and public policy, to assess our plans in Allston. The next phase of construction will begin only after the working group completes its review.

Gazette: Can you explain what you mean by co-development?

Lapp: The work team, which in addition to the chairs will include about 10 to 12 additional members from the University community, will study what other universities have done across the nation, and perhaps throughout the world, in partnering with industry, philanthropic foundations, hospitals, or similar institutions to determine whether or not we might learn from those experiences and adopt proven strategies for campus development in Allston.

Gazette: What does this pause mean for science at Harvard?

Lapp: Science at Harvard continues to grow, based on our faculty’s ability to compete for federal grants, in part from private philanthropy, and in part from the recruitment of new faculty in fields like stem cell science. We are continuing to build out space in Boston and Cambridge to accommodate our growth in the sciences. We are developing space in both Boston and Cambridge to accommodate, at least for the near term, those departments and those activities that were going to be housed in the Allston Science Complex.

Gazette: What does this mean for Harvard’s future development in the long term?

Lapp: We remain fully committed to Allston and to campus development in Allston. One thing I have been very impressed by in my short time at Harvard is the variety of programs and the level of commitment to the Allston community. For example, we opened the Harvard Allston Education Portal in 2008, where — under the direction of Rob Lue, professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of Life Sciences Education — our students partner with youth in Allston and Brighton. More than 100 local students are enrolled in that program, while more than 800 community residents have become Ed Portal members in order to benefit from lectures, workshops, and other opportunities. We also do a lot of work force training. We’ve engaged more than 50 members of the community in providing computer skill training and job training.

We are also undertaking construction of the roughly $3.5 million Library Park next to the Honan-Allston Library, and we are continuing to improve the landscape in Allston. We’ve already planted more than 150 trees along Western Avenue. We’ve designed bike lanes on North Harvard Street. We sponsored the Harvard Allston Farmers’ Market.

We also will continue to fund local organizations through the five-year Harvard-Allston Partnership Fund, an initiative through which we give out roughly $100,000 in grants each year to support community-based activities and groups.

The pace of growth may be slower than previously anticipated. But, nonetheless, we are committed to Allston.

Gazette: Can you tell us a little bit more about what this site is going to look like in the immediate future?

Lapp: The building is already at ground level. There is a fairly large fence around the site right now. We will be working with the city of Boston, the fire department, and the Inspectional Services Department on issues like aesthetics, safety, and landscaping, and we’ll also discuss those issues with the community.

Gazette: What does this pause mean for the institutional master planning process?

Lapp: The institutional master planning process will be a guidepost for the working group. We expect there to be some modifications going forward, and we expect to file an updated plan by the end of 2012.

Gazette: How will the new working group engage with the community? And how will Harvard continue to engage with its neighbors in Allston in general?

Lapp: We’ll continue our ongoing dialogue with the community throughout the next phase of this process. The work team will gather much input from colleagues from other institutions, from the city of Boston, and our neighbors in Allston.

In the immediate future, we are focused on the stewardship of the properties that we own in Allston.

We already have many leases for our buildings. We have, in the last 10 months alone, signed six new leases that fill 50,000 square feet. We also recently signed a couple of movie studios to short-term leases on some of our properties. We have also supported the expansion of Mahoney’s Garden Center into its new property along Western Avenue. So we’ve been working very closely in the community trying to make sure that we’re addressing its concerns.

Nonetheless, there are some properties that we have held over the last few years, expecting to use them as construction support. Going forward, we will bring many of those buildings — totaling roughly 100,000 square feet — into our real estate portfolio and actively pursue leases for them.

Our primary focus in the short term will be to lease some visible, strategically placed properties. We want to continue to enhance the vitality of Allston, bring people into Allston, and create the type of activity that we know the community would like to see.

We will also be engaging in a lot of our greening, as I call it, activities. For example, Library Park will be finished at the end of next year.

Gazette: When work on the Allston Science Complex site moves forward, will the development look the same as has been proposed?

Lapp: It would be premature for me to say exactly what will go on that site, what it will look like, and how that compares with what earlier designs envisioned. That’s part of what the new work team will help us think through.

Gazette: Have you given any thought to some of the many suggestions that have been offered about how to use Harvard’s land in Allston?

Lapp: The work team will consider a full range of options. We intend to reach out to people who have ideas and see what matches with the academic aspirations of Harvard, and obviously what is consistent with the needs of the community and the city.

Gazette: Is Harvard going to think differently about the way it approaches capital planning going forward?

Lapp: Yes. In fact, the idea of unifying a University-wide capital plan holds opportunity for not only the University as a whole, but for each of its individual Schools, as we think about coherent campus development. It also represents an opportunity for Allston, in that Allston planning going forward will be fully integrated into University planning, keeping in mind not only our programmatic needs, but our holdings in Longwood, Allston, and Cambridge. This is an opportunity for us to think about our campus in holistic and strategic ways.