Paul Berkeley on the Future of North Allston
The following is an excerpt from a taped interview conducted by local historian Bill Marchione with Paul Berkeley, President of the Allston Civic Association.
Bill Marchione: Would you begin, Paul, by giving us a little information about your family background?
Paul Berkeley: My grandparents on both sides were immigrants from Ireland. I'm not exactly sure when my mother's family settled in Allston, but my father's family, which first came to Cambridge in the 1800s, came to Allston in the 1890s.
BM: So you were born and brought up in North Allston?
PB: Yes, I'm a life-long resident.
BM: How did you get involved in community activities?
PB: There was a specific issue that got me to the point of attending meeting regularly, but I had gone to Allston Civic Association meetings occasionally before that because my next door neighbor was Joe Smith (the founder and long-time President of the ACA). I had known Joe from when I was a kid. He was the Boy Scout leader of Troop 5. He used to lasso me every once in a while and say, "Come on, let's go to a meeting and find out what's going on!"
After buying our house from my father in the early eightees, one of the first proposals for the neighborhood that I heard about---that people were really concerned about---was a plan to put a business on Everett Street, right behind where St. Anthony's Convent used to be, that required underground propane tanks. At the time no permits had yet been issued in the City of Boston to store underground propane gas. There were concerns that the gas could be a potential fire hazard---that there were explosive risks. And the proposed site was between St. Anthony's School and a supermarket, so there were lots people in the area.
A meeting was called at St. Anthony's. I remember it was winter. And I was listening to all these experts give their opinions as to how safe it would be to have the gas stored in the neighborhood. And then I heard people talking about the risks and how unsafe it was. I was really conflicted because I was new at this, and I was believing everybody, but they were saying totally different things.
Then this woman stood up and said, "Mr. Chairman, it's February and it's freezing out, but there are two hundred people here who've come out to tell you that we don't want this gas in our neighborhood!" And the crowd erupted into wild applause. At that the proponent said, "You know what? I'm going to withdraw my proposal. I'll find somewhere else to put it!" And he walked out. And I got a real sense from that incident of how the residents of a neighborhood could be very powerful in determining what goes on. That kind of caught me, and I started going to meetings and listening, and trying to learn what all this stuff was about.
BM: What other issues were on the community's agenda when you first became involved?
PB: In Allston at the time, the number of bars was growing, and the problems that that gave rise to were becoming more and more obvious. At the same time the number of students living in Allston-Brighton was growing, so this whole series of things was happening that seemed to fold into one another. In the first few years that I was involved it seemed that every month there was someone looking for a liquor license. At that time people tried to judge the applications individually, but we finally shifted our focus to a community standard. We asked ourselves, "Are there enough liquor licenses in the community? Do we really need any more? What benefit is there to adding to the number that already exist?" When we started doing that, we began to hold down the number of licenses and we saw a shift from bars to restaurants.
BM: Was this principally a problem in South Allston, or in North Allston as well?
PB: It was never really a problem in North Allston. Even today, there's only one bar in North Allston. If you include North Brighton there are two more. But those areas have always been considered one neighborhood because of the natural and man made boundaries that surround them. There are only three bars down there, plus one liquor license in a motel. But in Allston-Brighton as a whole there are sixty!
BM: The greatest concentration is in South Allston, isn't it?
PB: Yes. In the North Allston area the people who go to the bars are local people who pretty much know each other, and so you don't have that many problems, whereas in the South Allston you have people coming in from everywhere and mixing with each other, and that's how things get out of hand. And there's also the huge capacity of some of these places---600 or a 1,000 people---and no matter how well they're run, if you put 600 or a 1,000 people into a bar, and have them drinking until 2 o'clock in the morning, you're going to have problems.
BM: The ACA represents, it seems to me, two very different neighborhoods in North and South Allston. Is that an accurate statement?
PB: That's true. Most of the housing in North Allston consists of two-family homes and they are laid out on streets that have no mix of commercial and industrial uses, except on the perimeters, along Western Avenue and Lincoln Street. A lot of the houses in the neighborhood have been passed on from one family member to another. It's also an area that has often lost the argument for amenities with the city, whether it's been for police services, fire services, youth centers, senior centers, or libraries. Until we got the new library on North Harvard Street there was never a library in North Allston. It's kind of ironic. People looked at census figures, and seeing that more of Allston's residents lived in South Allston than in North Allston, they concluded that everything should go over there, but the people who lived in South Allston are in many cases transients---students or people who moved after just a couple of years, whereas the people who live on the north side tend to be long-term residents.
BM: Is the pattern of owner occupancy holding in North Allston?
PB: I'm sure that the number of owner-occupied houses today is less than it was ten or twenty years ago, but there is still a very strong, owner-occupied presence in the North Allston neighborhood. We don't seem to have the problems that exist in many other parts of Allston-Brighton of student penetration and heavy absentee ownership.
BM: Harvard owns some 270 acres of land in North Allston (an area comprising over 10 percent of the total area of Allston-Brighton), and the new President of the university stated in his inaugural address that the school's future expansion is likely to occur in North Allston. B.U.'s expansion into South Allston did enormous damage to that neighborhood. Do you feel threatened by Harvard's plans to expand its campus into North Allston?
PB: No, I don't. First of all, Harvard houses almost a hundred percent of its undergraduates. I don't know of any Harvard undergraduates that live in North Allston, unless they happen to be local people. There may be some graduate students living in the neighborhood, but graduate students are different from undergrads. The properties that Harvard has purchased are commercial and industrial properties and in many cases the uses are obsolete, so nobody has really been displaced by the purchases. There may be some businesses that rented spaces that Harvard now owns that are reaching the ends of their leases, and perhaps are not having them renewed. But Harvard has assured us that if they do housing in North Allston it's not going to be undergraduate housing. The development will most likely be for graduate schools or, perhaps, housing for the university's staff, or maybe even some affordable housing interwoven into their plan. They haven't really been specific about it, but they have expressed an interest in exploring these options. So, I don't feel threatened at all. There's an opportunity here and we need to be part of it. That's why we asked for a Community Master Plan, asked for it almost immediately after learning that that the school had purchased new acreage.
And, you know, the land that Harvard owns complements the river as green space.
People may think of this land as being just a visual amenity---that local residents can't actually use the land, but Harvard has an open campus. People walk through their grounds all the time. You can walk through the grounds of the business school, sit down on a bench, and enjoy the beauty of that campus. That's a real architectural and landscaping oasis over there.
BM: One complaint, where Harvard and North Allston is concerned, is that they never seem to acknowledge that they're in North Allston, despite owning more property here than in their original home base of Cambridge. Do you feel that way?
PB: I'm glad you mentioned that. Actually, when we first began meeting with Harvard in 1996, at the beginning of the Master Plan discussions, that was the original theme that we conveyed to them. As they began to tell us about their plans, we told them that we'd like them to think about the fact that so much of their campus is in Allston and that we'd like them to start facing us; that we didn't want to have to look at the backs of their buildings, or their chain link fences, or their parking lots any more. "If you're going to build in Allston, we said, "build with an orientation towards us." And Harvard's Spangler Center, which has since been built in Allston, is the first Harvard structure that has an orientation towards our community. Also,
One Western Avenue, the project that's going on in the corner, will have a Western Avenue address. So they are responding to our request. They are starting to think of themselves as being in Allston.
BM: Would you describe how the Master Plan process for North Allston was set in motion?
PB: The North Allston Community Master Plan is for all of North Allston, not just the Harvard holdings. We asked Harvard to pay for it since we felt it was necessary to have a plan up front. In the absence of a master plan, we'd always be reacting to Harvard's agenda. But if we could establish an acceptable agenda first, that might enable us to avoid future conflicts with Harvard and other developers, and actually get them to work with us.
BM: Are there any Harvard resources that you can visualize the community benefitting from as its expands into Allston---such as scholarships, the use of university facilities, and so forth?
PB: As far as scholarships are concerned, Harvard has a "blind admissions policy."
If you can get in, and you're unable to pay your own way, Harvard will find scholarship money for you. In terms of benefits to the community, one important benefit is jobs, and access to education. Harvard has an extension program, and we've been discussing ways in which they can pass along financial awards that would allow local residents to take advantage of its offerings. And then there's the intangible stuff. If Harvard develops a campus in which there are mixed uses you create a community where you have restaurants, dry cleaners, and other business opportunities resulting from people coming there for other reasons. And in meeting its own needs, it will also be in Harvard's best interests to help create a safe and viable community around its facilities.
BM: So you see the expansion of Harvard into North Allston in very positive terms?
PB: I guess what I see is that there are realities that we have to face. Harvard purchased this land. There are two directions in which we can go in dealing with the university. We can stand on the other side of the fence and hurl grenades at them for the next twenty years, or we can try to turn their desire to expand into a benefit for ourselves. Harvard has been around for more than 350 years. If they meet with a lot of resistance, and they find that they can't do what they want with this land, they can just sit on it for another fifty years, until we're all gone, and then do whatever they like. So I think its better for us to transform the land now.
Also, there's been a history of private developers who had all kinds of crazy ideas for this area. We've heard ideas for casinos and major sports stadiums, things that I don't see as benefitting the neighborhood. I think what Harvard does there would probably be much better for the community.
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