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The City Approval Process Behind Harvard’s Expansion into Allston

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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 — and just after the opening of Harvard’s state-of-the-art Science and Engineering Complex in the neighborhood — the University continues to have 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, and what hurdles Harvard must pass next.

Planning Processes

Harvard undergoes two different planning processes for new developments on University-owned land: the institution master plan and the permitting process.

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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.

By contrast, there is a separate “permitting process” for projects like the ERC, in which Harvard hires an external firm such as Tishman Speyer to develop University-owned land into “commercial, residential, and other non-institutional” space.

Governing both these processes is Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code, which Autler said outlines “the procedures for small projects and large projects and how they need to be reviewed.”

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.

Nupoor Monani, a senior institutional planner at the BPDA, said the ERC review 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.

Alex Krieger, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and former co-chair of the Allston Work Team, said the University developed the idea for the ERC after realizing it had acquired more land in Allston than it 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 BDPA

Once a project is proposed, the BDPA facilitates planning and conducts “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 aims to ensure that the developer “seeks input from all different stakeholders.” In the case of Harvard’s expansion into Allston, those include Harvard-Allston Task Force, which is a resident-led impact advisory group.

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.

Resident Input, Board Approval

Part of the task force’s role, according to Monani, is to review the developer’s filings.

Last month, she said, residents considered and submitted comments on the project notification form filed by Tishman Speyer — the ERC’s primary developer. The 266-page document details the first phase of construction, which will focus on approximately six acres of land within the planned development area. The second phase, “phase B,” is still in its conceptual state, but Tishman Speyer has “secured the right to pursue entitlements,” per the form.

Using resident comments and input from local city councillors and stakeholders, Monani added, the BPDA will compile a “scoping determination,” which outlines “gaps in the analysis of impacts and mitigation” the developer should address in subsequent filings.

Harvard’s developer, per Monani, will work with local residents and public officials to create a “community benefits package,” which describes the development’s potential negative effects and offers corresponding mitigation measures.

Assuming the developer fleshes out its mitigation plans thoroughly, Monani said, the plans will go to the BPDA board for approval. The board can choose to approve the project, “table it” to be considered following further impact analysis, or reject the project — an outcome she said is very rare.

For the review process to have “legal standing,” lawyers must draft planning contracts to be signed by all of the involved parties, including the developers, the BPDA, and the Harvard-Allston Task Force.

Construction

Following planning approval, developers must put forth their ideas before the BPDA again — this time for construction — in order to seek a permit to break ground, Monani said.

Per the form, Tishman Speyer will begin construction on the ERC in 2022. This first phase will consist of developing the six acres of the land into a hotel, conference center, residential buildings, retail, and public green space. The Harvard Allston Land Company will begin construction of “streets, sidewalks, and other utility infrastructure elements” in 2021.

For a project the size of Harvard’s vision for Allston, Monani said it is difficult to estimate how long construction will last because of myriad “externalities that impact the construction timeline.”

Fluctuations in the economy, for example, can impact a project’s timeline.

“There have been a number of projects in Boston’s history — well, not a large number, but certainly some significant ones — where you’ve dug a hole in the ground, and then, bam, a recession hits,” she said. “What do you do? You can’t get financed, so you just stop.”

Monani said one of the “biggest unknowns” regarding the ERC’s development is the turnpike that runs through Allston, which she said has been a “big impediment for Harvard.”

Despite potential obstacles such as that one, Monani said she is determined to work with the developer to “make sure the community feels comfortable with the direction we're going in.”

“What we have seen so far is that Tishman Speyer is a willing partner in working through this project with us. They’ve been responsive to the needs of the community,” she said. “We’re all trying our hardest to make it happen.”

—Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at james.jolin@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Maribel Cervantes can be reached at maribel.cervantes@thecrimson.com.

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