When President Drew Faust was looking for a fresh perspective on Harvard’s plans for its Allston properties, she tapped a former mayor, an expert in urban design, and a professor of financial management to co-chair the effort. The Allston Work Team recently delivered its recommendations, which essentially break down the University’s vision for the neighborhood into five discrete projects. Bill Purcell, a former mayor of Nashville and past director of the Institute of Politics, Peter Tufano, the Sylvan C. Coleman Professor of Financial Management at Harvard Business School, and Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, talked with the Gazette about their team’s report.
Gazette: When people think about Harvard’s future in Allston, they probably think first about the science complex that was expected to revolutionize collaborative science and produce miracles in health care, and at the same time revitalize the neighborhood. How does your proposal compare to that plan? Is it on the same ambitious scale?
Krieger: Yes, we believe it is. In fact, what’s better than before is precisely that we’re suggesting that the future of Harvard’s relationship with Allston does not depend exclusively on the completion of the science building. The facility will be done — soon, we hope — and it still can be devoted to the sciences. But in addition, other wonderful things can take place at the same time.
Purcell: There is still a focus on the University and its needs going forward, but it is a future that now includes partners, co-developers, and opportunities for the community that simply weren’t possible before.
Gazette: Let’s focus on the existing science building foundation for a minute. Is the new vision going to require a major redesign? Will that be an obstacle to moving ahead with that project?
Krieger: There is a substantial structure there, and what happens above it would have to be modified, based upon the specific set of users that will eventually be housed there. So of course there will be a redesign required, but that’s very different than starting from scratch.
Tufano: I think it’ll end up being a stronger building and a stronger site design than originally envisioned. If we roll the clock back, there was a need for a great deal of arm twisting some years ago to convince people to come to Allston, a place where the Business School has been for around 100 years. Now there’s a recognition that, especially with the Cambridge and Longwood campuses getting more crowded, this is going to be a desirable place. And it’ll be a smart building. We probably have learned a few things as a result of going through that design process, and then going back to that design process, that allow us to identify things that the original design might not have pushed forward.
Gazette: Let’s move on to another project: the creation of an enterprise campus in Allston Landing North. What’s your vision for that?
Krieger: In the original master plan, this was an area dedicated toward long-range academic needs. Now the goal is to create an interactive environment between academia and industry and health care partners that can be realized sooner if the University pursues our recommendation to find partners to begin to build facilities there, partners who may be in real estate or hospitals or the life sciences. The ability to start interacting and collaborating will occur sooner than the expectation in the original master plan.
Gazette: Why should we expect these businesses to want to move to that area, especially given the continuing uncertainty in the economy? What’s going to attract them?
Tufano: First, it’s to our advantage to have businesses or nonprofits close to us, doing their work, so that we can interact with them pedagogically. Why do we think that this may be attractive to them? Our developers and consultants tell us that this is the kind of project that is potentially interesting to a number of parties, and we’ve received some indications of interest that that’s true. The site affords access to the rest of Harvard, and it’s seven minutes on the Pike to the airport. And we have a great lead example: Genzyme is already there.
Krieger: And then it’s probably 10 minutes from Route 128. It’s a very well-placed, large piece of land. There are very few pieces of land like this anywhere in the region. The life sciences industry is categorically one of the continued growth industries in the region, and one upon which the metropolitan area will depend for its economic future. There’s no question in my mind that once the University starts to become very public about its desire to find partners, many partners will be found.
Gazette: Moving up Western Avenue, you see Barry’s Corner as a site for mixed-use development, with housing that could accommodate Harvard faculty and students and a variety of retail outlets. Is that what the neighbors need and want in that area?
Purcell: The housing stock in Allston overall is well-preserved and has been there for much of this last century, but the opportunities for new housing, especially as the Western Avenue corridor develops, are very compelling. This will provide an excitement, a vibrancy, and retail opportunities for not just this specific area at the corner, but actually Allston overall. Our sense is there are opportunities there for graduate students, for faculty, and for other users, and that ultimately residential is not just one of the great strengths in the Boston market right now, but will be a great strength for the development of Harvard’s holdings in Allston.
Krieger: Over the years, there have been several studies undertaken by the community itself, by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and others that have all identified housing and supporting amenities as one of the ideas for the neighborhood. So we’re not introducing anything new. We’re confirming what many others have said is the right future for Barry’s Corner.
Tufano: The number of applications for space by our graduate students is multiple times of what’s available. We know that the students have a desire to be on or near the campus. Junior faculty do as well. So this is not a pie-in-the-sky recommendation. It’s based on a lot of years of experience, and, in this case, excess demand for housing by Harvard affiliates.
Purcell: And because we think, in this case, that there’s an opportunity for a private developer to take the lead, there’s an opportunity to do it more quickly than would otherwise be possible.
What the people who go to live there in Barry’s Corner are going to realize is that this is a very special place, and a very special community, and they are across the street from the Business School. They are steps from our athletic facilities. They are a walk from the Kennedy School, and from Harvard College. The truth is this is an incredible location, within Boston, within our institution, and within the overall region. And those folks will be living in the center of it.
Gazette: Another project proposed would create an academic conference center and hotel. Is that a good fit for the area?
Tufano: So first of all, what is it? What is it not? It’s not a large conference center. It’s not the Hynes. We routinely around the University run a large number of events, which bring together small numbers and large numbers of important people from all over the globe. We often find nowhere to house them. We find no rooms large enough to actually have our events. One of the hardest jobs at Harvard has got to be a meeting planner who’s got to accommodate these groups.
Krieger: And all of our individual Schools have suffered, seeking space for the conferences we organize.
Tufano: You can probably fill up this facility, whether we call it a conference center or an executive center, or whatever we might call it, just with the demands that currently can’t be met at Harvard. People who know the Square know that there’s a limited number of hotel rooms and an even more limited number of rooms that can accommodate groups of 50 to 100 or 200. One of the biggest assets the University has is its convening power. So the ability to leverage this convening power in an easier way to advance knowledge by getting people who are experts together is, I think, what Harvard is all about. This simply facilitates that.
Gazette: Now, let’s talk a little bit about the process. There have been other committees involved in planning for Harvard’s future in Allston. What’s different about this time? Why should people who are seeing this report think that we are any closer to building something?
Purcell: There’s never been an Allston Work Team before. What makes this different is that, from the start, President Faust picked three co-chairs with very different backgrounds and charged us very firmly to move deliberately and as quickly as we could to reach these recommendations. Then she included in the process the deans who are knowledgeable of the University’s academic needs, three alumni who know the University extremely well, and know both the markets and the city well, too. She added the executive vice president to the effort, and Katie Lapp became critically important to the work we were doing by bringing the information that we needed and preparing the institution to be ready to act on the recommendations if they are formally approved.
Krieger: In the past, there were multiple committees, often without much knowledge about what each other was doing around Allston.
Tufano: I was on one of those committees, the financing committee. You were on many of those committees. There were committees made of deans. There was an advisory committee made of alums …
Krieger: Alums and potential donors, and very few of us interacted with the other committees. And as a result, there was no clear University-based center for reaching such decisions.
Gazette: So this has been a more integrated effort.
Krieger: It is, much more so.
Gazette: Did it also benefit more from increased input from the private sector or analysis from outside specialists?
Tufano: It’s fair to say that most of the tension in the planning of this project seven or 10 years ago was based on an inward focus around what Harvard wanted to accomplish using largely internal sources. That’s not to say that we didn’t use planners and others, but we were pretty self-referential. This process intentionally, perhaps as a result of coming out of the economic crisis that humbled us all a bit, appropriately so, became much more externally focused. We were trying to figure out what other universities do, trying to figure out other ways to finance things, looking at ways to be smarter. And I think that is a major difference here. Which specific external partners that we ended up working with, I couldn’t tell you. But I believe the University is much more open to the outside world, in this process at least, as a result of work we’ve done over the past 14 to 15 months.
Purcell: I do think that is a difference, this interest in what other institutions have done, institutions that we have thought of in the past as peers and others that we realized had experience that was beyond or different from ours, whether they were close at hand here in Cambridge or on the other side of the continent in California. We have not resisted reaching out.
Gazette: What about engagement with the community? How much interaction did you have with the people who will live most closely with this project over time?
Purcell: When we came in as a work team, appointed by the president, we did what you would expect. I went out, first of all, into the community, onto the street, into the neighborhoods. Other staff from Harvard did the same, began looking to see in a different way, with different eyes, in a different point in the process, what we had done, and what we could do.
Truthfully, that resulted in immediate action in pursing the president’s commitment to the greening and the leasing and the improvements of the neighborhood, effectuated by Katie Lapp and folks in HRES [Harvard Real Estate Services], which was visible fairly quickly. We then realized that there needed to be a more regular way for community input and for community engagement, not simply dependent on the regulated, legally mandated planning process. So in addition to the Allston Task Force and our regular representation at boards of trade, and other kinds of meetings in the community, which Harvard has done for a long, long time, we added the monthly coffee hours, which meant that the first Thursday of every month for the last year, I’ve gone to Allston, walked across the river, and said to the community: Here we are. Doors are open. There’s coffee, there’s donuts, but more importantly, there’s Harvard interested in what you think and what you believe we should know or whatever question you might want to ask.
Lastly, and I think for our purposes, most important, is the release of these recommendations in the way that they are being provided. Now begins the next opportunity for not just community understanding, but for community response.
These are recommendations, and we truly appreciate reaction and input and ideas before coming up with a fully formed, completed plan. While everyone wants to know, in a natural human way, how it’s all going to turn out, the truth is it’s more valuable if, before we jump to that point, we have a chance as neighbors and as community to share our own ideas and visions, and that can happen now.
Gazette: Does the faculty have a similar opportunity to respond to these recommendations?
Purcell: My sense is the whole community has an opportunity to be heard, not just for a day or a week. Much longer than that, until such time that the University has heard what it needs to hear and analyzed all it needs to know.
Gazette: So, let’s say that I’m a faculty member or a student, happily ensconced in the Yard or its environs. Why do I want to be the first group to go across the river?
Tufano: Well, first of all, you wouldn’t be the first group.
Gazette: [Laughter] Point taken! Why would I want to go, besides the chance to have such a wonderful neighbor as the Business School?
Tufano: And remember that athletics is across the river — my side of the river — and our students go over there all the time.
Krieger: Every undergraduate is there virtually every day of the week.
Tufano: We’re going to have an immediate example to figure out how much we can lure folks across the river with the Innovation Lab, which is really a product of this committee in an expanded way. It was in this committee and working with Lapp and her office that we figured out a way to actually make what could have been a white elephant building into something that would work. But in this next phase, when it opens in the fall, we have to convince students that indeed there’s something important and exciting happening there, and I think the process that we went through in order to get that speaks to something about what’s going to happen next in Allston.
We engaged the students, faculty, from all over the University, in figuring out what it is that we wanted to do, what were our goals, what were our aspirations? We had an idea first about what that would be, and then we went out and tested that idea. That process was relatively quick, you know; from idea to opening will be 18 months or so. It could take longer for Allston for the kind of projects we’re talking about, but I think it’s a model. It’s a model that shows what can be done when you’ve got the right people in the room, up front, where they can actually conceive of an idea and get it to the point where it can then be tested with a broader group of folks, and then be implemented relatively efficiently.
Purcell: I think it won’t be terribly long before what you hear very broadly across this community is people saying, I want to be in Allston, I wish I were in Allston, why didn’t anybody tell me about Allston?
Krieger: We’ll hold him to that. We’ll ask him about that years later!
Gazette: What do you see as the time frame for the projects in the recommendations you have laid out? How long before these ideas could be transformed into bricks and mortar?
Purcell: I think we can say in terms of the charge that this is a work team that was very focused on the next decade.
Tufano: We believe that these are things that can be considered and appropriately determined within that time period and that there are many things that can be done more quickly, whether it’s more of the kinds of leasing that you’ve already seen occur with the holdings that Harvard has now, or the Business School additions that we’ve just talked about here, or other retail opportunities as well as housing and amenities. Those things can happen in real time, and my presumption is that they will.
Gazette: Is there any other point that you would like to address?
Tufano: I think we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that among the things that are different about Harvard’s approach to Allston now is the fact that, administratively, Harvard has been pulled together through the creation of the Office of the Executive Vice President in a way that has led to the consolidation of administrative functions, so that the finance side of the house is talking to the real estate side of the house, is talking to the capital planning side of the house. Now those things can be done in concert, and somebody who’s in charge of all of that is at a level so that they have the ear of the president and the provost. We can coordinate things a lot better.
The second thing to keep in mind is that the University is planning to go to its friends in a capital campaign at some point in the near future. That will give us an opportunity to articulate even more clearly what our objectives are, not just at this level of the individual Schools but at the University level. This will give great momentum to the work that we have been talking about.