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Harvard Construction Slowdown Prompts Allston Anger

You may have noticed the massive hole in the ground in Allston where Harvard University has begun building its new $1 billion science complex.

However, plans for developing the site are up in the air, with Harvard citing financial pressures and saying the "economic landscape has fundamentally changed."

The slowdown has led to complaints from some of the project's Allston neighbors.

WBUR's David Boeri reports.

HARRY MATTISON: It is a nice neighborhood and having Harvard as a neighbor would make it even nicer.

For local resident Harry Mattison there are two Harvard Universities just as there are two Allstons. The Harvard that makes promises and the Harvard that breaks promises. The Allston that might someday be and the grittier Allston that is.

BOERI: Did you grow up in Allston?

MATTISON: No. I moved here in 1994.

BOERI: I started the first year of my life in Allston.

MATTISON: Everyone lives in Allston, for at least a little while.

And then they move out as my family did back when the trend was beginning in the 1950s. Back when there were still slaughterhouses and train yards, but also stable neighborhoods and lots of public schools in Allston and even farmland. When the Mass Turnpike came roaring through in the '60s, it gave North Allston two hard edges: the Turnpike on the South and Harvard on the North.

Hard in the shadow of the world's richest university that's expanding south and west into Allston like Manifest Destiny, Western Avenue moves fast through a economy that's moved on.

MATTISON: Used to be a Volkswagon dealer. Used to be a gas station. This used to be the dry cleaners. [Trails off...]

Empty lots, vacant buildings, warehouses, businesses, shopping plazas. Harvard began the process of secretly acquiring Allston properties in 1989. When Harvard announced in 1997 that it had put together 52 acres of real estate for future development, Boston Mayor Tom Menino called its stealth, "the highest level of arrogance."

Yet for Allston, there was the promise Harvard was coming.

MATTISON: We were told more pedestrian friendly, more jobs, more stores, more economic opportunity, more new housing.

Were Harvard to build, Harvard faculty and staffers might move in and invest in a neighborhood where most are transients and the owner occupancy rate is only 20 percent.

Harry Mattison and other residents say they waited and waited as more fences went up around more vacant properties, the promise of Allston was frozen and the promise by Harvard seemingly remained out of reach, as always.

[Sound of jack hammers.]

Yet despite all that, Harvard's economic engine has been hammering into new ground on Western Avenue in what's been billed as a phenomenal billion-dollar science complex.

MAN: Oh my word. Look at that hole. Wow.

Two stories down into the earth and about five acres across: the foundation of a single infrastructure from which four buildings will rise. With construction cranes towering above and an expected completed date of 2011, this was to be Harvard's first big step of its Allston expansion.

But suddenly last month, the president of Harvard said the university's financial problems — a 30 percent drop in its $37 billion endowment — now require the project to slow down.

Harry Mattison sees promise fading .

MATTISON: Well we're looking forward to this building opening in a couple years because that would bring new people and some life into the neighborhood. So the prospect now is that this could be just a giant, flat slab of concrete for who knows how many years.

[Audio of chanting and horns blowing]

Over at Harvard Yard, while first-year students celebrate winning their choice of housing for the next three years, we talked with Christine Heenan, Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs, first about the science center slowdown.

BOERI: When's it going to be known whether you're going to continue that project?

HEENAN: Probably at the end of this calendar year, end of 2009. We'll secure the site, bring it to ground level, and then if there is a decision to pause, figure out some near term strategy with the city and the BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] for the site to make sure that it's safe, secure, aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors, etcetera.

Heenan emphasizes that Harvard is still intent on building a vibrant, multi-use campus across the river.

HEENAN: One of the things that's different about a university as a neighbor is universities by definition are focused on the long-term, they're focused on educating generations of students not just now, but into the future. And that really can result in lasting partnerships and lasting benefits for the community.

BOERI: When you talk about a 50-year plan, for most people in Allston death is going to come before Harvard does.

HEENAN: Well, pursuit of a plan over 50 years also is predicated on prudent decision making at steps along the way.

Back in 2004, Harvard, the Allston Community, and the city agreed to a strategic plan, envisioning an urban village main street, affordable homes and a promenade to the Charles. Five years later, half the shopping plaza remains vacant. And resident Harry Mattison makes sure we understand there's still no promenade.

MATTISON: I mean you can't even walk down it now without almost tripping over loose asphalt.

Heenan says Harvard is providing Allston with $25 million for community programs, and mentoring its students. And now that its own plans are slowing down, Harvard will pursue other ways of generating economic activity in some of those vacant buildings.

HEENAN: Our plans now are...we're looking very aggressively at short-term leasing and we're doing so in cooperation, in conjunction with the city and our neighbors.

Meanwhile, Harry Mattison is trying to shame Harvard into fully moving into the neighborhood.

MATTISON: The world's wealthiest institution shouldn't be bringing blight and decay into a working class neighborhood in Boston.

Listen to the entire Radio Boston show Friday, March 20 at 1 p.m., when they explore this and other university projects in the Boston area.

This program aired on March 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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