With Huge New Allston Campus Underway, Harvard Planning Head Discusses Vision For Area
But the 387-year-old institution is looking to improve on the model of a tech hub that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pioneered across the river, Harvard Chief of Planning and Design Purnima Kapur said Tuesday.
Kapur, speaking at Bisnow’s Boston Higher Education & University Development Summit at the Westin Copley Place, said that although Kendall Square has been the "poster child" for innovation hubs, there isn't much activity in the area after the workday is done. She said the vision for Harvard's new campus is one that will attract both educators and community members at all times of the day.
"I think as successful as Kendall Square has been, in the intervening years, we as urbanists and urban planners and educational institutions have all learned some lessons," Kapur said. "One of the shortfalls, if you will, of Kendall Square, many developments of that era, is that they were really focused on one use."
Harvard and development partner Tishman Speyer celebrated the groundbreaking Nov. 1 of the first, 900K SF phase of the ERC along Western Avenue in Allston. This came after the team received a $750M construction financing package in June from Otera Capital. Building on the existing housing, retail and other commercial development in the area, Harvard aims to bring forth a community-oriented space for students, faculty and residents.
The first phase will include 510K SF of lab space across two buildings, a 343-unit apartment building, a mass timber conference facility named the David Rubenstein Treehouse and 2 acres of public outdoor space.
"We are approaching this as a mixed-use community that will provide live, work, play, enterprise, business, everything culture," Kapur said. "We are not approaching this as something that is just labs with innovative uses."
She said the design of these education and innovation hubs has been an evolving effort over the years, with newer projects looking to add more mixed-use development for all types of people.
"I think that's something that has evolved over the years. I mean this is not to criticize what MIT has been doing there," Kapur said. "The effort to bring academia and enterprise together, particularly where research is central, has been part of many efforts."
Kapur also compared ERC to newer hubs that have sprouted up across the country like North Carolina's Research Triangle, which is made up of Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina and has attracted more than 7,000 companies to the region, according to its website.
Kapur also mentioned Cornell Tech's Jacobs Urban Tech Hub in New York City, which has emerged in recent years to weave more technological innovation into the city's academic and public fabric. Kapur was executive director of New York City’s Department of City Planning before she joined Harvard in 2018.
Harvard's presence in Allston is not limited to this new campus. The university owns more land in the area than in Cambridge, with 358 acres in Allston compared to 215 acres in its home city. Harvard Business School has called the neighborhood's Western Avenue home for decades. The university launched multiple projects in the area, including its Harvard Innovation Lab in 2011, the Harvard Launch Lab in 2014 and The Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab in 2016.
Becoming the next Kendall Square is something Harvard has tried to back away from in the past, as its relationship with the community and the city was strained over its plans in the neighborhood, the Globe reported in 2021.
Under Mayor Michelle Wu's administration, it appears the relationship has improved as the city and university have become partners in transforming the neighborhood through the ERC and the city and state's efforts to realign the Massachusetts Turnpike through the I-90 Allston Multimodal Project.
"We are so grateful for our partnership in building a Boston that is truly reflective of and responsive to the priorities of our communities," Wu said at the ERC groundbreaking, according to the Boston Globe. "As we continue to grow as a city, this project is both proof of, but also a blueprint for, our ability to ensure that the benefits of Boston’s growth are shared by everyone."
Last year, the development team agreed to set aside 25% of the project's 343 apartments for affordable housing and make a $25M payment to establish the Allston-Brighton Affordable Housing Fund, the city announced.
"We are going out to developers to be partners with us in doing the spending, and we are working with the city in making sure that whatever we are creating there is meeting the city's goals and needs as well," Kapur said.
From a sustainability perspective, the university has also worked with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, an organization in charge of implementing the city's Climate Action Plan, as part of its higher education group to help align with the city's climate goals.
"We have really interesting partnership opportunities here in Boston, run by the Boston Green Ribbon Commission," Jaclyn Olsen, director of sustainability at Harvard, said at the event. "I think it's a really interesting way to get involved in some of the planning and thinking and trying to help facilitate conversations around utilities, the state regulators and then the building owners who don't know when and where we will need that electricity."
The university has made an effort to ensure the research and building it does in these neighborhoods doesn’t have harmful impacts, Olsen said.
"What the mayor has been very focused on are those chemicals and toxic chemicals in the environment," Olsen said. "We make choices in our buildings and with our procurement dollars that are impacting people, so thinking about equity in that broad sense as well.”