HLS Zeros in on Allston

BY MIKE WISER

In the first month after he was named University president, Lawrence Summers put the Law School on notice that the school could be moved, even over the faculty’s objections, to a new location in Allston. The Law School administration took Summer’s new policy seriously, and, on November 5th, Dean Robert Clark appointed Professor Elena Kagan chair of a committee to look into what such a move could mean to the school.

As Kagan’s committee begins its exploration of three or four possible locations, it has been given the narrow mandate of gathering facts. The facts that the Committee on Locational Options gathers, however, are almost certain to be fodder for a fierce debate on whether the school should move, where it should go, and what sort of a deal the school should get for sacrificing its Mass Ave. location.

The University’s history with the Allston move has been engulfed in controversy from its purchase of the land to the HLS faculty’s initial rejection of even considering a move. The move itself would face numerous hurdles from purchasing property and easements, ensuring land is environmentally safe and figuring out exactly how you move an entire school. Despite the difficulties and almost guaranteed controversy, the University administration, driven by the need for more land, seems intent on expanding the University across the river and ensuring that the Law School seriously considers its options.

A History of controversy

“If you look at history for the last 100 years, Harvard has grown,” Dean Clark said.

The University, he said, expands by about a million square feet every ten years. At the same time land in Cambridge has become more and more difficulty to acquire, it has become more and more difficult for the University to obtain permission from Cambridge for its projects. The Education, Kennedy and Law Schools have literally been boxed in and all three have had to resort to housing part of their staff in rented offices around Harvard Square.

The strategic plan that the Law School submitted in the spring called for new buildings on the School’s campus, but the space problem as the administration saw it were not limited to the next 25 years or the Law School. All of the schools, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), need space. Expansion, as they see it, is not an option but a law of nature.

Summers, however, sees the answer in Allston where the HBS is already located. Thirteen years ago the University began quietly purchasing land in the Boston suburb, which was once home to slaughterhouses and stockyards but now houses everything from WGBH to a K-Mart. It almost doubled its holdings in the area and soon found itself with more land in Allston than in Cambridge. According to The Crimson, the university hired Beal Properties to purchase the land around the Business School quietly. The oldest university in America was a landlord to a Star Market, a car dealership and a number of auto repair shops.

When it was discovered that Harvard secretly owned some of the dingier properties in Allston, Boston Mayor Tom Menino criticized the secret purchases and the University’s “arrogance.” Since then the University has worked on improving relations with the community. Joe Wrinn, Director of the News Office for Harvard University, described the secret purchase scandal as a “brief glitch in the relationship” for the residents.

When President Summers became Harvard’s 27th President in July, he was confronted with an expanding University, a lot of land in Allston, and faculty, students and alumni who were dubious about seeing their school move. From the beginning of his administration, Summers has emphasized that he intends to see the expansion of Harvard University across the river.

“If we make the right choices — if we take full advantage of a physical opportunity across the river in Allston — an opportunity to create a campus that is several times as large as this whole yard — we will have earned the gratitude of future generations,” he said in his October inauguration speech.

Besides the Law School, the Education School, Kennedy School and FAS science departments are all considered candidates for a move to Allston. However, Wrinn emphasized that the University administration has not decided what to do with the land that it owns.

“There are no set plans at this point, but what President Summers has asked faculties to do is be creative in exploring options in their long term planning,” he said.

Summers has asked all of the schools not only to work on the possibility of moving to Allston, but to ensure that any new construction takes account of the possibility that their school won’t be the permanent resident of the new space.

Clark applauded the way Summers has handed the Allston possibility.

“He’s been firm about this,” the Dean said.

In the past the Law School faculty has not exactly embraced the possibility of abandoning the current campus for a new one in Allston. Two years ago the faculty voted almost unanimously to object to considering a move to Allston. According to Clark, some staff from the Harvard Planning and Real Estate Office mentioned at a summer faculty workshop that the school could move across the river to Allston.

“People got electrified,” Clark said, so President Neil Rudenstine told the faculty that the campus would not be moved if the faculty objected. Clark said that it was an informal statement and “not binding” on the University. It was at the first faculty meeting of the year that the near unanimous motion was introduced objecting to the possibility of moving the school across the river.

That, Clark argues, was a mistake.

“It was important for the Law School to think seriously about whether such a change is a good thing in the long run,” he said.

The faculty controversy has not died, but Clark claims that most professors have accepted the fact that the school at least needs to consider a move. More controversy is almost guaranteed as the school starts to look hard at what the options are if the school were to move.

Where to go?

As Kagan’s Committee on Location Options looks across the river, it will be focusing on the possibility of moving to three sites around the Business School. According to Clark and Kagan, the school could move to the Soldier Field Athletic Area that boarders the river west of North Harvard Street; to the commercial area to the south of the Business School near the intersection of North Harvard and Western Avenue; or to the current home of Genzyme on the river near the Western Avenue bridge.

The Committee will have its work cut out for it when it considers the advantages and disadvantages of these various sites. For one thing, the University owns a lot of land in Allston, but it doesn’t own all of the land it needs and there are other hurdles ahead. Genzyme, for example, has a lease on one property through 2057 and constructed a $112 million dollar plant in the early 1990s. Besides buying out leases, the University will have to deal with railroad easements that run across some of the land.

An even greater problem may be figuring out how to make Allston a place that students and faculty will want to go to. Clark, for example, describes the Western and Harvard property as “unbelievably ugly now.” He adds that with a “huge imagination” you could envision a campus that includes all of the professional schools and that creates a critical mass that would create a second, attractive campus with a commercial area for students like Harvard Square.

There is yet another option on the table — moving even father down the river. Professor Charlie Nesson has recently been drawing attention to the fact that the University owns property in Watertown called the Watertown Arsenal. The former home of a 200-year-old armament supply house, the University purchased the site this summer for $162 million. It is not clear how the site could fit into the University’s plans to develop Allston. Wrinn said that the land w
as purchased as a form of “land banking” and that the property could be used for anything in the long run. Nesson has suggested that the Law School could move there, but Clark argues that the land has its limitations.

Kagan said the committee would look into the Arsenal option, but added, “I don’t know enough to know whether that will assume a large or small part of the deliberation.”

Costs and Benefits

Kagan says that her committee is charged with finding “anything we can think of that is related to the pros and cons of going.” Besides the hornets nest of problems inherent to the property at any particular site, they will have to deal with a multitude of considerations that go to the question of whether the school should move.

Some of the considerations are more sentimental than practical. Langdell, Austin and Gannet House all have their own constituencies who don’t want to see them turned over to the FAS as the school adopts a new home. That, Dean Clark argues, is a short term problem that would go away in the decades after the school adopted a new home.

“I’m less emotional about a lot of the space stuff,” Clark said. Still, a lot of alumni, faculty and students may be more emotional and could put up a lot of resistance to the school being moved.

One of the primary considerations for the committee will be to decide whether the school actually needs to move. Some faculty and students may want to challenge the assumption that the growth of the Law School and University are so necessary that the Law School should be forced to relocate.

For Clark one of the main advantages of moving is that the school could design a new campus from the ground up. Poor facilities, he said, was the No. 2 complaint in the McKinsey survey of HLS students a few years ago.

A major concern of the faculty is that a move across the river would move the Law School farther away from the FAS and could reduce the interaction between the FAS and HLS faculty. However, if a number of the professional schools were to move across the river, then Allston might provide other opportunities for faculty interaction and cross-registration.

If the school decided to move, then it isn’t clear what effect that would have on the proposed renovations to the current campus. Right now, the school has put everything on hold, and any development at the University will have to take account of the fact that they could have a different tenant in the long term. Future and current students may also be concerned that the long-term focus on moving could leave them behind with an unimproved campus.

One of the major challenges will be figuring out who would pay for the move. Clark said that if the University took over the Law School campus, then it seems reasonable to assume that the University would at least provide the school with compensation for the property and buildings that they took over along with reasonable moving expenses. Wrinn was less committal on who would pay for any move, saying only that new buildings are usually paid for through a capital campaign.

Considering how many factors there are, Kagan’s job will not be an easy one, but balancing the pros and cons and figuring out what to do after her report will be the real challenge.

The road to Allston

Kagan’s committee has been charged with reporting back by the spring, but other than that there are no clear dates in the process. Clark says that he hopes the process will provide “some clarity within a year or so,” but Wrinn emphasized that no decisions were pending and that the entire process is long term. He said that in thinking about the future of Allston, it was best to think in terms of decades.

For the Law School, however, there is some pressure to reach a resolution on the future of the school before it begins its latest capital campaign. Clark says that he has already received commitments from some alumni, but that he does not want to kick off the official campaign until he can tell people what they are investing in. Also it is not clear what affect a move could have on alumni giving. Some may withdraw their donations, but others may see the new construction as a chance to get their name on a building.

Wrinn said that final decision about what to do with the Allston property would be made by the Harvard Corporation. Before the decision reaches that level, the University’s Physical Planning Committee will coordinate the various proposals of the different schools and figure out how to proceed. While the final call will be up to the University, Wrinn said that the whole process would be done in a “collegial way” to bring along the various schools and include them in any decision.

For now there are more questions about the move to Allston than there are answers. Kagan’s committee may bring some clarity and focus to the process, but if the University decides to pursue moving the Law School across the river, then it will probably be years before anyone knows what such a move could look like.

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