Empty Windows: Harvard’s Vacant Commercial Properties in Allston


{shortcode-471488a28f98f055581c84571bdaf7c7378242a3}ince 1989, Harvard has acquired hundreds of millions of dollars worth of land in Allston, often in large, high-profile deals that would facilitate some of the neighborhood’s biggest developments.

But quietly, the University was also padding its portfolio with nearly 40 commercial properties scattered across Lower Allston and Brighton, which house a variety of neighborhood businesses from auto shops to cafes, one-story offices to restaurants, a towing service, and a garden center.

Now, according to an analysis by The Crimson, nearly a quarter of those properties lie empty.

Many of the empty commercial properties are slated for redevelopment, to be turned into offices and laboratories, residential buildings, or retail space. Others will be converted for institutional use — like a warehouse on 92 Seattle St., set to become a space for athletics and Art, Film, and Visual Studies department programs.


In interviews, however, business owners, residents, local development advocates, and workers spoke about the loss of the businesses which used to occupy many of the empty properties, and complained of others as a blight on the neighborhood while they lie waiting for development to move forward.

As Harvard slowly moves to fill those properties with new housing and retail, residents and the businesses they used to sustain are left looking into empty windows in the interim.

‘An Eyesore Forever’

In two cases, buildings worth several millions of dollars have remained vacant for many years — eight in one case, and decades in another.

287 Western Avenue, the $3 million site of the former Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center, has sat empty since 2015, awaiting its turn to become part of a large new development.


The project will demolish the current buildings on site and create a new building boasting 90,000 square feet of office and research space and a public courtyard. Harvard didn’t file a letter of intent for the project — the first step of the city-mandated development review process — until 2023, eight years after the community center left.

Just next to the Boston Landing commuter rail station, 176 Lincoln St. — a $30.7 million, 5.2 acre property — has gone unoccupied for decades.

Harvard purchased it in 2006, although it wasn’t until 2019 that they hired Berkeley Investments to redevelop the property — which, per the developer’s description, had “sat vacant and cut off neighborhood connections for over 30 years.”

Harvard Allston Task Force Chair Cindy Marchando said that 176 Lincoln has “been an eyesore forever.”

“We’ve tried all different options to try to get that building to be used,” she said.


In early 2023, the BPDA approved Berkeley’s plans to redevelop the Lincoln St. property, replacing it with nearly 800,000 square feet across three buildings.

Two of the new buildings — approximately 551,500 square feet — will be primarily commercial, holding offices and research space. The third building will be residential, creating 252 new apartment units including ten affordable live-and-work units for artists and affordable retail space for artists.

As it stands, construction could be “another year or two away from getting started,” according to Jo-Ann Barbour, the executive director of a local housing nonprofit.

“We want them to be a good neighbor,” she said. “And a good neighbor is going to fill those vacancies and take care of them.”

‘We Would Have Loved to Stay’

Several of Harvard’s vacant properties are concentrated in Barry’s Corner, an area of Allston centered on the intersection of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street,.

A string of them line the intersection, across the street from the Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and just past the Science and Engineering Complex — 9 Travis St., 182 Western Ave., and 204 N. Harvard St.


Like the other properties on Western Ave. and Lincoln St., the three buildings are slated to be demolished and rebuilt as a major retail and residential development at 180 Western Avenue. But three and a half years in, the project remains in public engagement under the city’s required large project review process.

Currently, all three properties sit empty, despite lying along one of Allston’s main commercial corridors.

In 2017, each was occupied by a business: a commissary kitchen for Flour Bakery + Cafe; Stone Hearth Pizza Co.; and a 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven left in 2019, while Harvard asked Flour and pop-up restaurant Jamaica Mi Hungry — where the pizza shop was formerly located — to leave in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

In an interview, Joanne B. Chang ’91, the owner of Flour, said she was disappointed to leave when Harvard asked her business to go in 2018, although she understood “it was never going to be a long-term situation.”

Still, Chang said she was “befuddled” every time she drove through the area and noticed the building was still empty. “We would have loved to stay,” she said.

Marchando criticized Harvard’s decision to ask Jamaica Mi Hungry — the former occupant of 182 Western Ave. — to leave last year when the owner fell behind on rent.

Barbour also said she regretted the loss of the pop-up restaurant. “The fact that they could still be there providing great food for the neighborhood — it’s sad, because they were a great business,” she said.


When Swissbäkers, the bakery next door, ran into financial trouble in 2019 and faced closure, Marchando said, Harvard was more generous.

Nicolas Stohr, the owner of Swissbakers, said that Harvard offered grace until they could get back on their feet, allowing the business to remain open in the meantime.

“We are grateful to have Harvard as one of our landlords and value the strong relationship we’ve built since the restructuring,” Stohr said.

But Ernie R. Campbell, the owner of Jamaica Mi Crazy — the restaurant which operated under a year-to-year lease — said Harvard asked him to leave in 2022 when his lease was set to expire.

Campbell said he liked being there, even if foot traffic was mixed and the space wasn’t easy to work with. “It’s a nice location, I really miss it.” he said. “It’s just that I couldn't hold on.”

‘Vibrant For Many Years to Come’

In an emailed statement, Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa said that the University’s approach toward commercial properties was geared toward building a dynamic and thriving Allston.

“Harvard Real Estate’s intentional leasing approach focuses on placemaking and attracting a variety of retail tenants that will contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of the neighborhood,” Kamosa wrote.

She added that Harvard is “taking a multi-tiered approach to ensuring the neighborhood remains vibrant for many years to come through major investments to create and modernize retail properties that will attract long-term retail tenants.”

To win approval for its developments, Harvard has also provided substantial community benefits to Allston, including an annual grant with hundreds of thousands in funding to local nonprofits, donating property for affordable housing, and financial support for open space and public art.


But as residents wait for the University’s development projects to get off the ground, many of the buildings remain unoccupied, lying in wait to be demolished and replaced by newer, shinier developments.

Alex L. Cornacchini, the executive director of Allston Village Main Streets, a nonprofit that supports businesses and local development, said larger landowners generally face less pressure to fill vacancies in their properties.

“When a property owner is wealthy enough,” he said, “they’re not like, ‘We need to make X amount of money off of this vacancy.’”

Instead, Cornacchini said, they can “just leave it vacant and wait for the right tenant.”

Locally, that means some eager potential tenants have been turned down by Harvard, according to Cornacchini, who said he had heard from businesses seeking to locate in the area that they faced trouble securing a lease on Harvard’s commercial properties.

“I’ve seen businesses be like, ‘I looked at this space and it looks really nice, but I can’t afford 30 bucks a square foot and the property owner isn’t willing to come down,’” he said.

In Barry’s Corner — and across Lower Allston — residents wait for Harvard to deliver on their promise to build an area full of life. But in the interim, according to local activist Harry E. Mattison, the space feels mostly transitory.

“It’s a place to pass through, not really a place that anyone uses as a destination,” Mattison said.

—Staff writer Jina H. Choe contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.