Greater City Providence

Harvard looks to private partners to jump start development in North Allston. A model for Providence?


The Boston Globe reports on plans by Harvard University to jump start development on its land in North Allston by teaming up with private partners. The University’s plan would bring in private investors to develop a life sciences complex in the Boston neighborhood across the Charles River from their main Cambridge campus.

Does any of this sound familiar, a large institution, crossing a river, developing life sciences”¦ Of course we’re obsessed right now with the Route 195 land, but the fact is, Brown already has numerous holdings in the Jewelry District, chiefly along Richmond Street, before even going after Route 195 parcels.

Here’s the rub, the institutions, Brown, Lifespan, Johnson & Wales, all need the redevelopment of the Route 195 land and the Jewelry District to succeed as much as the city and state do. There’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides because a lot is at stake and there are tough negotiations over control, and taxes, and whatnot; but everyone is working toward the same goal. The mayor told PBN:

[Providence Mayor Angel] Taveras said the city needs to get back on “firm financial footing” as development takes place in order for the project to attract the proper investment.

The Taveras administration has initiated several cost-cutting measures to close the city’s projected $110 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, including closing schools and laying off teachers and police officers.

But the mayor recalled recently being told by a top administrator at Johnson & Wales University: “I can’t have a successful university in a failing city.”

Taveras agreed.

“We can’t look at this in a vacuum,” the mayor said. “We need a financially stable capital city.”

The relations between city and state, town and gown, private and public are symbiotic, they all need to succeed or none will.

The big stumbling block in the city’s eyes is property tax exemption. In the current economic climate, Brown, Johnson & Wales, URI, and Lifespan all tax exempt non-profits are the only ones actively eyeing the Route 195 land for development. It is impossible for the city to provide services for what is in effect, new city landmass without realizing any increase in city revenue. Negotiations are underway on that front with anti-taxation rhetoric cooling some from the institutions and clear signs from the city that they are willing to hear proposals from the institutions.

Looking back to Harvard and Boston, the plans there don’t stop at research centers, Harvard is looking to use its clout to bring in private development and create the 18-hour neighborhood we’re envisioning for the Jewelry District.

An analysis found demand for a conference center and hotel with 180 rooms. The team also urged the university to create stores, restaurants, day care, and housing for faculty and graduate students near Barry’s Corner, a forlorn crossroads imagined years ago as an anchor for the neighborhood’s long-awaited renaissance. Harvard owns much of the property there. In what university officials said proves their commitment to moving forward, a half-dozen businesses | including two restaurants | are due to open this summer.

The most significant change so far appears to be within the power dynamics of Harvard itself, an institution legendary for its fiefdoms. The team that studied Allston included eight of the university’s deans, a group not accustomed to sharing authority. They made a humbling discovery: The university should look outside its walls to private developers.

The Harvard plan will create the neighborhood amenities that other businesses are looking for, making the neighborhood attractive to developers, both on Harvard’s property and elsewhere in the neighborhood. Perhaps it is time for the Mayor the Governor and representatives from our institutions to take a trip to North Allston.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.

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