In 2000, Harvard submitted the sole bid to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to claim 48-acres of dormant land in Allston. After securing the large tract of land for the lofty sum of $151,751,636, Harvard officially owned more property in Allston than it did in Cambridge.
Twenty-one years later, Harvard envisions big plans for its Allston property, including an Enterprise Research Campus, the Allston Multimodal Project, and a new stop on the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail line. Here is a brief synopsis of steps the University and the developers had to take to get these projects approved with the city of Boston.
Harvard undergoes two different planning processes for new developments on University-owned land: the institution master plan and the permitting process.
The institution master plan is specifically designed for developments that would serve the University’s “academic or athletic or support facilities,” according to Gerald Autler, a senior project manager at the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
There is a separate “permitting process” for projects like the ERC, in which Harvard has hired external firm Tishman Speyer, to develop University-owned land into “commercial, residential, and other non-institutional” space. In the case of the ERC project, Tishman Speyer received approval from the BPDA to develop lab and office space, residential areas, and a hotel and conference center.
Governing both these processes is Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code, which outlines “procedures for small projects and large projects and how they need to be reviewed,” per Autler.
Though the review process for smaller developments is “straightforward,” larger institutional projects or projects with external developers begin “long before” any official construction plans are filed, he added.
Nupoor Monani, a senior institutional planner at the BPDA, said the ERC process, for instance, began with the University filing documents in 2018 to establish a planned development area.
“That [PDA filing] describes, very broadly, the contours of the development — how big is it, how many square feet, what uses will it have, and what benefits will it provide to the community,” Monani said.
Prior to the 2018 filing, committees at Harvard mulled a possible “enterprise research zone.” Alex Krieger, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and former co-chair of the Allston Work Team, said in an interview that Harvard's idea for the ERC came about when the University realized it had acquired more land than was needed for academic purposes.
“Harvard had acquired much more land than they would ever need for their academic purposes, for university purposes,” Krieger said. “And, therefore, there’s an opportunity to delegate to sort of a plan for some of that space to become partners with industry and so forth.”
The Role of the BPDA
Once a project is proposed, the BPDA’s role is to facilitate planning and conduct “development review,” per Monani.
In its planning capacity, the BPDA takes on the traditional role of an urban planner to consider how the city is changing project-by-project and to define parameters for new developments through zoning codes and other guidelines, according to Monani.
Monani added that, acting as a development reviewer, the BPDA ensures a developer goes through the review process and “seeks input from all different stakeholders.”
For a large project like the ERC, soliciting input from stakeholders comes after the developer files a letter of intent for their project and the BPDA forms an impact advisory group, per Autler.
Autler added that the resident-led Harvard-Allston Task Force takes on the role of the impact advisory group in Harvard developments.
Anthony P. D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association and member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, said he believes the group has considerable sway over project plans.
“We have a much more integrated, complex community review process that could really make life difficult for Harvard, if we were ignored,” he said.
After extensive public input and review of planning documents, Monani said the project goes to the BPDA’s board of governors to seek approval.
The length of the board approval process is largely determined by the complexity of the proposed project. For Harvard’s Enterprise Research campus, the approval process spanned “two-and-a-half or three years,” per Monani.
Though the planning and review process does not end following approval, Monani added that it represents “another important milestone in the Article 80 review process.”
Once the project is approved by the Board, all the agreed-upon measures from the review process are consolidated into legal documents.
“The stage post-Board approval is really codifying those things and making sure that the language is right, and we’re sort of capturing the intent of the review process or the decisions made,” Monani said.
—Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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