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Harvard's Boston Real Estate Move Has Made It 'An Allston University With A Cambridge Campus'

Kendall Square in Cambridge has roared to become one of the hottest life science and tech markets in the country, making the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology an important player in real estate and brain capital. 

Up the Red Line, Harvard has finally commenced a delayed push across the Charles River into Boston’s Allston neighborhood, leading some to speculate if Harvard is attempting a real estate play to mirror the other college in Cambridge.

Harvard's Boston Real Estate Move Has Made It 'An Allston University With A Cambridge Campus'
Harvard owns 358 acres in Allston, where it plans to redevelop land into a new science and innovation cluster.

“Harvard owns more land in Allston than they do in Cambridge, so we joke they’re an Allston university with a Cambridge campus now,” City Real Estate Development Corp. Director of Acquisitions Clifford Kensington said. “It seems like after a while of owning that land, they’re looking to put it to use.”

Harvard owns 358 acres on the Boston side of the river, as opposed to 215 in Cambridge, and many speculate it will be a key driver in a tech-focused pivot to Allston and Brighton. The university’s Allston campus, roughly 36 acres of which has been dubbed the enterprise research campus, is planned to house various startups, social enterprises and incubators.

Some may question if Greater Boston needs another innovation cluster, but not every innovation cluster in the city is in the backyard of Harvard Business School, which has been in Allston since 1927, and what will be the new home for Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 

Kendall Square is full, and rents for office and labs are out of the stratosphere,” Kensington said. “So it’s obvious there’s a need, and this seems like the perfectly logical next step.”

Kendall Square Skyline
The Kendall Square skyline

Walk around MIT and Kendall, and the concept might seem a little familiar. Harvard declined to speak on the record for this story, but it has previously said its Allston property is not meant to compete with Kendall Square. But at a time when MIT is pushing ahead with a $750M deal to redevelop the Volpe Center into a mixed-use development with nearly 2M SF of office and labs and thousands of units of housing, it is hard to believe Harvard is not looking to echo the strategy further up the river. 

“I don’t know why one would be concerned about that, because it would be a tremendous asset,” Mount Vernon Co. Chairman and founder Bruce Percelay said. “I think another Kendall Square would be a good thing because it is bursting at the seams and the type of tech that is being drawn to Kendall Square is our economic sweet spot.”

Start And Stop

Before Larry Summers stepped down from his role as Harvard president in 2006, he was a driving force behind the university’s scientific push into Allston. Current Harvard President Drew Faust (who will end her tenure in June) paused plans for the $1B science center in 2009 in the wake of the university losing $11B from its endowment during the recession.

Although there was a freeze on the science center, the university proceeded with several innovation facilities along Western Avenue. The Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab) opened in 2011 while the Harvard Launch Lab opened in 2014. The Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab opened in Allston in late 2016. Earlier that year, the Boston Planning & Development Agency approved revisions to the science center project and construction is officially underway on the 500K SF Harvard Science and Engineering Complex.

Harvard's Boston Real Estate Move Has Made It 'An Allston University With A Cambridge Campus'
Rendering of Harvard's science and engineering complex

While Harvard may have taken its time to begin its science sojourn over the river, other real estate leaders have made their own push. Mount Vernon's 132-unit The Wave will open in spring 2018 on Western Avenue, which was originally envisioned as a Boston extension of Harvard Square’s hub of cafés and independent retail offerings during the Summers years of planning for Allston

“Western Avenue is big enough where it is not going to entirely be Kendall,” Percelay said. “It can have a very healthy mix of life science, retail and residential.”

Mount Vernon Co. and Kensington’s City Real Estate Development both have several multifamily properties in Allston and Brighton, and they are not the only developers to see a bright future ahead for these neighborhoods historically viewed as the hub of cramped student living.

The "New" Boston

“This is the new Boston,” The Hamilton Co. Chairman and CEO Harold Brown said. “We’re creating an area that is as good, if not better, than the current Back Bay and Seaport.”

The Hamilton Co. broke ground in September on a 40-unit workforce housing project at 79-83 Gardner St., which Brown said provides affordable housing with more convenience than the transit-starved Seaport. Located on the MBTA Green Line and blocks from Harvard’s Allston expansion, the company’s three-phased plan will ultimately deliver 200 affordable housing units to the burgeoning “new Boston.” 

Harvard's Boston Real Estate Move Has Made It 'An Allston University With A Cambridge Campus'
79-83 Gardner St.

Brown and other developers note Allston and Brighton are poised to explode with growth since it comes with better transit connectivity than the Seaport, and nowhere is that more evident than Boston Landing.  

“The train station definitely allows us to attract some of those firms looking to relocate from the suburbs into the city,” NB Development Group Managing Director Jim Halliday said. “We’re bullish on the long-term aspect. Boston Landing has been a catalyst for the area, and we think we’ll benefit down the road from the other activity generated by Harvard.”

NB Development, the development arm of the New Balance athletic company, is behind the 15-acre Boston Landing, a sports-focused, transit-oriented development near Harvard's Allston properties. The company entered a private-public partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to build an infill commuter rail station at the project, which is now minutes away from downtown thanks to the on-site rail connectivity. 

Harvard's Boston Real Estate Move Has Made It 'An Allston University With A Cambridge Campus'
The shuttered Beacon Park Rail Yard is poised to eventually house West Station and 50 acres of developable land for Harvard once the Massachusetts Turnpike is realigned.

Another infill station is expected one stop closer to downtown from Boston Landing in the form of West Station. Harvard spent years acquiring roughly 90 acres of what was Beacon Park Yard, a former train yard used by railroad company CSX Transportation.

The site is marked by a winding stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which the Massachusetts Department of Transportation intends to realign, opening nearly 50 acres of land for Harvard. The university and state are working to build the station, which at one point was expected to be a hub for higher frequency, subway-level commuter rail service.  

Increased train service will only fuel the Allston and Brighton developments. NB Development signed two 30K SF leases in September at Boston Landing's 80 Guest St. for Swiss drug manufacturer Roche Diagnostics Operations and Proteostasis Therapeutics, which is relocating to Boston Landing from Kendall Square. With rents in the East Cambridge submarket beginning to increase into the $80s/SF and some predicting it will go even higher, the need for space is evident.

“Life science is something new that evolved in the last year and a half, so we retrofitted three floors of 80 Guest to be life science-accommodating,” Halliday said. “Look what MIT did to evolve Kendall Square, and Harvard will be the same for this, providing incubator space for life science and probably other R&D technology companies as well.”

CORRECTION: OCT. 18, 11:39 A.M. EST: A previous version of this story did not clarify Harvard’s existing Allston presence and development during the building pause on the university’s science center. This story has been updated.