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Monday, December 12, 2005

we need to hear all sides on allston

Hey people, sorry the rest of us have been leaving Golis to do the front page stuff lately; it's been kind of a crazy weekend for me. But although it's a little belated, here's a Crimson column from last week addressing an aspect of the Allston expansion that often gets overlooked: its impact on the surrounding community.

One of the primary issues at stake is Harvard's potential acquisition of the Charlesview Apartments, affordable housing located on property that the University has been drooling over for a while. Columnist Mike GW writes, "The Charlesview Apartments are a gritty cluster of concrete rising in the shadow of the brick walls of the Business School and the neighborhood’s long-time neglect. Charlesview is not exactly a pretty sight. But for many of its low-income tenants, it’s all that they’ve got."

Basically, Harvard wants to buy out these apartments, but the people living there don't want to accept a deal that they feel will leave them worse off than they are presently:
Tenants are demanding the right to negotiate directly with Harvard over the future of their homes. This comes from years of being kept in the backseat as the building’s owners schmoozed with Harvard planners and kept the residents in the dark. (more in expanded post)
What I appreciate about Mike's position is that he doesn't condemn the expansion altogether, nor does he claim to know the best way of balancing residents' interests against the University's (although he does offer a couple of practical suggestions). He also does not purport to speak on behalf of the community members whom the expansion plans will impact. Instead, he simply calls on students and administrators to include all Allston residents who will be affected by Harvard's move as full participants in decision making:
The proposal to include all community members in the Charlesview decision deserves the unconditional support of the student body. Any expansion that fails to respect tenants’ rights, their voices, and their desires will not only demolish one of Allston’s last bastions of affordable housing, but will pit town against gown before the first brick of this campus-to-be is even laid.
To me, an inclusionary planning process in which all stakeholders have a voice is vital--perhaps even more important than the conclusions it reaches. But it's hard to figure out where to raise this concern. Students are generally expected to care more about what will be built in the new Allston space--and how it will impact generations of harvard students to come--than the construction's repercussions for Allston residents now and in the future. When my UC rep contacted me to get my input on the expansion, the email encouraged me to dream big:
Dear fellow Quadlings,

As you know, Harvard is planning to expand the campus into Allston (projected for 2010) and the contractors are trying to solicit ideas from undergrads, as to what they would like to see offered as part of the new real estate, e.g. a student center, a golf practice facility, restaurants, pubs/clubs, shuttle service to Fenway, supermarket, etc. Basically, if you have any ideas - no matter how far out they seem to be - shoot them my way and I will forward them onto the planning taskforce...Thanks!
I wrote back thanking the representative for soliciting students' input, and letting her know that one of my main priorities in the move to Allston is to avoid unnecesarily disrupting the community already living there (yes, this is even more important to me than a golf practice facility--and I played golf for Harvard!). Judging by the email she sent back, my input won't make much of a difference. But if a lot of us follow Mike's advice and lobby for residents' participation in the planning negotiations, maybe we can help prevent the dialogue from turning into a lop-sided power play.

What are your thoughts on the Allston expansion? Mike also calls on the University to help renovate the Charlesview Apartments if the residents decide they want to stay. Do you agree with him? Also, I've heard that the University has taken some Crimson writers on tours of the Allston property. Can any readers from the Crimson confirm or deny this? If it's true, and if, as I heard, the University did not show the journalists around in the poorer neighborhoods, is it the Crimson's responsibility to do a little investigative reporting and seek out the areas that the University tours didn't highlight?

Happy Monday, everyone!


At 4:00 AM, Blogger Samson said...

I hate to be the asshole here, but...

"Tenants are demanding the right to negotiate directly with Harvard over the future of their homes. This comes from years of being kept in the backseat as the building’s owners schmoozed with Harvard planners and kept the residents in the dark. (more in expanded post)"

The building's owners control the property. The people staying there pay rent to the owners for the right to live on the property. If the owners wish to sell the property, change it in any way, shape or form, they need not ask for the tenants approval or include them in the process in any way. They simply need to terminate whatever lease the tenants have signed, or refuse new leases, until every lease contract within the complex is expired, in order to do with the property what they wish.
I know this seems cold, ugly, and wrong - but the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, somebody owns those buildings and that property - and it isn't the tenants.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

I hear you, samson, and I think that's one of the toughest points to argue against. In a strictly economic sense, the tenants don't have a "right" to take part in negotiations that will affect their livelihoods (like relocations to areas farther away from access to public transportation).

On the other hand, life isn't strictly economic, and we can still push for something better. I think the building owners and the people pressuring to buy them out ought to have a clear picture of the consequences of their choices on the lives of people in our community before they make economic decisions. This is simply introducing more information into the decision-making process; it's not handing over property rights to the residents.

It wasn't a strictly economic decision, for example, when Harvard decided to fund 20% of the Brian J. Honan Apartment Complex construction two years ago. Helping to finance that affordable housing project may have been more of a PR move or an attempt to win the favor of Mayor Menino than an actual demonstration of concern for low-income communities in Boston, but nevertheless it was a move in the right direction.

Point being, as a powerful agent in this situation, the University can reasonably ask that less-powerful stakeholders be actively included in negotiations. It's not required, but it helps everyone to make more fully-informed decisions. That's my take, anyway.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous agreeing w/ samson said...

hey katie, how are the current tenants stakeholders? they do NOT own any of the apartments in any legal sense.

i think that ppl need to know that life isn't fair. it's a fantasy world in which one believes that governments or corporations will act out of their own best interest. once ppl realize this, then they'd possibly take adequate preparations and not depend outside powers. and be on the guard against those without conscience willing to take advantage of the weak and poor.

just because you want justice doesn't make it so. those tenants will kicked out and they'll be forgotten, as we move onto the next cause to fight for.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

hi agreeing w/samson,
by 'stakeholder' i just mean someone who has a stake in a commercial enterprise, which can include those who aren't directly party to a contract or transaction but who care about (and are affected by) what goes down. sorry if it seemed like i was invoking a more specific legal definition; my bad for being unclear.

in a situation like this, i don't see how tenants can "take adequate preparations and not depend on outside powers." could you explain what you mean a little more?

in terms of "those without conscience willing to take advantage of the weak and poor," i think that we as students can do our best to pressure the university to exercise conscience. the darfur divestment campaign was a good example of this, as well as slam's work this year.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear katie,

why don't you do some investigative reporting?

start with the whole university side, which you have no clue about. Then move onto charlesview. you'll beat those crimson editors yet!

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why don't you tell the Crimson to! They're the bloody newspaper with the reporters and the hard-ons for "scooping" things. This is just an opinion weblog.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah good, someone finally admitted it.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Samson said...

Katie - I totally understand what you're saying here - you want the tenants' voices to be heard in the process. I just wanted to point out that they don't necessarily have to be heard - they don;t own the property, etc. However, if they get a big enough voice, and raise enough of a stink about the whole situation (Harvard screwing over poor people looks pretty bad to the public with that monstruous 26 billion dollar endowment) then they may be able to extract some concessions. I hope that they do, for their sake - or else they'll get crushed.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Shai Davis said...

Just a small point I wanted to pick at, nothing central to the debate:
When you mentioned Harvard's 20% funding of the Brian J. Honan Apartment Complex construction, you cited it as an example of a decision that wasn't strictly economic. However, you immediately speculate that the university had its own interests at heart in the move (which, I'm sure, many would say they may/ought to in any event) in spinning their own PR or winning political points.

I'm disheartened at your quick (near) dismissal of the possibility of actual good will. While I don't mean to argue that Harvard definitely did have altruistic intentions, I think that we might at least allow the benefit of the doubt to settle for a moment before suggesting alternate, more conniving agendas.

A general distrust of large institutions can be a good thing if it forces us to push and investigate - but not when it becomes a necessary and immediate response to any bureaucatical move.

I believe that one of the issues our generation will have to most strongly struggle with is a lack of visionary, devoted, and trusted leadership. However, this absence can be understood if we never give our leaders a moment's allowance of credence or confidence in their intentions. If we always assume ill-will, they - and we - will quickly become jaded and the opportunity for positive leadership will be truly lost.

Again, I do not mean to speculate on the true intentions of the university's funding of 20% of that complex 2 years ago. I do, however, assert that the leadership of our institution - to some significant degree - is interested in our development into responsible global citizens, and is not simply looking to stuff their bank accounts.

I'd like to see CC take on some of these questions of leadership in a more direct way, especially as many of its leaders will no doubt occupy those roles in the coming decades. You have the opportunity to inform the way we relate to leaders and institutions, so let's not lazily rely on our parents' generation's simplistic and cynical understanding of the "man".

Keep up the good work!



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