Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Harvard, Allston on Quest for Compromise

By Erika Templeton

ALLSTON—For decades the neighborhood has faced the ever-encroaching campuses of Boston University, Boston College, and Harvard University.

Today, the front line lies at Western Avenue in Lower Allston, where Harvard’s new development plans seek to alter the commercial landscape, and tensions are surging as residents say the city and the university are working against them.

“They have their own plan,” said Natalie Tarbet, assistant director of the Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center, which sits on Harvard-owned property. “They’re not going to let the community get in the way. ...Only rarely does Harvard get stopped in its tracks.”

To open a dialogue in the neighborhood, Mayor Thomas M. Menino created the Harvard-Allston Task Force in 2006. The 16-member group of civic leaders and residents meets regularly with officials from the university and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Residents at the meetings have complained about sidewalk construction that does not take bus routes into account, green spaces that do not grant community access, property buyouts that have slowed local business, and public housing relocation projects that reinforce the socioeconomic divide.

“We’re still learning,” said Gerald Autler, project director from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, acknowledging flaws in the plan. “Harvard is making extensive changes.”

Those changes have meant compromise for everyone involved, but not all residents see it that way.

“Money, power, influence, Harvard pretty much has it all,” said task force panelist Harry Mattison.

Many fear the university holds greater political sway, which puts the community at a disadvantage. “When you’re a working-class neighborhood trying to organize on a grassroots level against one of the richest institutions in the world, it’s an uneven playing field,” said Jake Carman, a 22-year-old member of the Allston-Brighton Neighborhood Assembly.

Autler cites Harvard’s previous property-buying tactics as one cause of community resentment. “Harvard purchased a lot of land through a front company, and so there’s a lot of lingering mistrust,” he said.

Some, like Harry Nesdekidis, local activist and owner of Harry’s Foreign & American Auto Body in Brighton, hope the task force start moving forward with plans. He also knows there’s no going back.

“It’s too late, they already bought it,” he said about Harvard-owned properties like 370 Western Ave., where buildings that once housed Kmart and Frugal Fannie’s have sat vacant for years. “Instead of dragging something out that you know is going to happen, just do it. Then have the city hold the school accountable.”

Harvard has given up some of its original plans in an attempt to compromise with residents. “You’d be very had pressed to find a community benefits package that is on par with [Harvard’s] anywhere in the nation,” Autler said. “In the next year or two people are going to start seeing tangible results.”

Nesdekidis supports the development of new green spaces and is pleased with the new “education portal,” a series of tutoring and enrichment programs in writing, math and science created by Harvard for community children. ““I hate seeing when something goes forward and it’s just for Harvard today,” he said. “Let’s see something for the next 100 years, for our kids.”

Mattison, too, wants the task force meetings to be more than a clash of wills. “Our goal is not to prevent Harvard expansion, per se,” he said. “Our goal is to put forth a more just and compelling vision where it’s not just all about Harvard. It’s about everyone.”

Officials from Harvard did not return phone calls.

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