Harvard’s blank canvas

Take a left on Cattle Drive and go to the end

I WAS STANDING on the roof of the Doubletree Hotel along Soldiers Field Road, looking down at what could easily be described as a whole lot of nothing. But that was sort of the point. Harvard University has bought up an enormous amount of the land surrounding the hotel on the Boston side of the Charles River and is now starting to get serious about turning that nothing into something. The plan is to build a neighborhood where innovation can flourish, where Harvard students and faculty can blend with folks from other educational institutions and companies to produce businesses, jobs, and research that can make a difference.

The land surrounding the Doubletree is a blank canvas and Harvard is just about to start painting. Construction will begin later this year on a new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences along Western Avenue. There are plans for a hotel and conference center. Roads are penciled in with names like Cattle Drive and Stadium Way. Real estate executive Steven Fessler has been hired to lead development of what Harvard is calling its enterprise research campus.

After years of delay and planning, Katie Lapp, Harvard’s executive vice president, says the project is finally taking shape. “To some people, it may look like the early stages,” she says. “To us, we feel like we’re in the third, fourth, or fifth inning.”

Off to the left from my vantage point atop the Doubletree, looking out toward the Massachusetts Turnpike, longer-range plans are being developed. There is talk of straightening the Turnpike, moving it further south, and simplifying the spaghetti network of access roads that lead on and off it. There’s also talk of building a transportation hub there. If all that happens, the neighborhood Harvard is starting to build could end up extending all the way to Boston University.

Harvard being Harvard, there are lots of smart people working on the Allston expansion. The university has invested a lot of time, money, and effort preparing and planning. Officials sweat the details.

Harvard Innovation Lab participants, from left, Jean Luo, Gerardo Torres, Miriam Huntley, and Rahkeem Morris.

Harvard Innovation Lab participants, from left, Jean Luo, Gerardo Torres, Miriam Huntley, and Rahkeem Morris.

Here’s a very small example. We wanted to do a photo shoot out on the property itself, and I wanted to feature Fessler in the photo. Harvard didn’t say no to the idea, but it was clear that wasn’t what they wanted. So they offered instead a bunch of students who are trying to launch startups out of the Harvard Innovation Lab. It sounded like a good idea and it was fun talking to the students, who were buzzing about their fledgling businesses.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

But when it came time to take pictures, Harvard officials pulled out hardhats and construction vests for the students to wear with the Harvard emblem on them. It seemed a bit contrived, but it was an example of how Harvard leaves very little to chance.

That penchant for control has some people nervous. They wonder if Harvard can set the stage for this new neighborhood and then get out of the way. Harvard President Drew Faust assures me the university won’t smother the enterprise. “You asked the question, what’s it going to look like in 5 to 10 years,” she says. “I don’t know, but it’s going to be a lot of fun to find out.”