Allston and Harvard’s Growing Pains


Apologies Cambridge loyalists: Allston is here to stay.

A year after Harvard opened its landmark Science and Engineering Complex in Allston, growing shares of the student body are frequently visiting the neighborhood for classes, shifting our institutional center of gravity towards the Charles’ shores. Harvard’s ambitious spurt, years in the making, is finally coming to life — and with it comes increased scrutiny on the hidden costs behind our newest lecture halls.

Our board has opined on the Allston initiatives repeatedly in the past, tracing Harvard’s progressive expansion year after year; we have come to accept the path of ‘progress’ — of glimmering architectural complexes and Veritas prints — as almost inescapable. Assessing the overall toll of our University’s presence remains, on the other hand, an ongoing and daunting task.

Harvard’s presence in Allston, while relatively disruptive, is not necessarily a bad thing — nor does it have to be, assuming responsible stewardship and investments to minimize our institution’s growing pains. The new campus isn’t just a boon for the swarms of students who now get to take classes in slightly newer, far away buildings: If one believes in the productive impacts of academia writ large, the busy lecture halls and labs across the river are bound to facilitate the sort of knowledge creation that can prove immensely socially beneficial. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences complex, for example, might spur the expansion of research programs wrestling with some of the biggest questions in medicine, climate science, or other deeply impactful fields.


The upsides to the expansion aren’t exclusively hypothetical. Harvard’s growth will bring — has brought, in some cases — undeniable, tangible benefits to the Allston community. The proposed Enterprise Research Complex, for example, has been dubbed a project “for everyone” by University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and claims to offer opportunities to Allston’s own residents. Outside Harvard’s vast confines, the sheer influx of affiliates into Allston will almost certainly increase foot traffic in the area, expanding the customer base of Allston businesses and hopefully boosting the neighborhood’s sometimes meager economy.

Promising initiatives and glimmering buildings do not, however, fully capture the development’s local footprint — nor do they convey its potentially taxing impact on some residents. Allstonians have good reason to be skeptical of Harvard’s good faith. The University’s secretive land-buying strategy — which saw it purchase acres across the river under a generic developer’s name for eight years, in what has been deemed exemplary of “the highest level of arrogance” — sowed rightful distrust between the University and town leaders. The ensuing rift will not heal overnight, and Harvard’s lackluster, contemporaneous response, which dismissed years’ worth of mischaracterizations as “fiscally prudent,” hardly helped. The University must, if nothing else, acknowledge that it understands how its past behavior feeds current reticence. Moving forward, transparency (and not financial prudency) must be the norm: Future and ongoing plans shouldn’t be kept secret for the benefit of Harvard’s finances to the detriment of locals. Residents of the communities our development plans might affect are entitled to helpful, timely updates regarding our institutional expansion.

Those future plans should also include tangible benefits for the most vulnerable in Allston — the families and individuals who will likely face rising rents as their secluded corner of Boston becomes a vibrant Crimson hotspot. Harvard has, to its credit, already committed some $25 million to affordable housing in Allston. Commendable as that investment may be, it pales in comparison to the estimated $1 billion tab for the SEAS complex. Housing affordability is an almost intractable issue and often involves hefty amounts of bureaucracy, but Harvard, using its institutional heft, ought to at least make an effort to engage with the Allston government to push for the zoning changes that would make affordable housing projects more feasible. The University should, at the same time, remain mindful of other externalities of its presence in the area, ensuring that future projects remain environmentally friendly (as exemplified by the surprisingly ‘green’ SEAS building) and continue pushing for public transportation improvements in the area; our multi-million dollar pledge to a new planned MBTA stop is a good start.

The bottom line, for our Board, is that Harvard’s developments in Allston should serve its old residents just as much as its new ones. Every University decision — land purchase disclosures, urban investments, housing initiatives — must convey an understanding of the colossal impacts of our growth on some locals, and reflect a willingness to maximize the benefits they will reap.

While our Allston chapter will, in all likelihood, bring forth substantial benefits for academia and society alike, that progress must not come at the expense of the people whose community we are transforming. Harvard must keep engaging, humbly and respectfully, with the government and the local community in Allston while planning new projects, lest it falls into the all too common tendency to frame itself as an economic activity-spurring savior while sweeping away the concerns of those we claim to be helping.

Harvard is on track to make Allston a second Cambridge. But as we rush towards our new, expansive campus, we ought to remember that we aren’t the only ones — nor the first ones — to call the neighborhood home.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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