Friday, January 15, 2010

Veritas: Harvard, Allston, and the Future

I know the issue of Harvard and Allston creates, well, a bit of discussion. In one of my recent posts, “The Influence of Higher Education on Boston Real Estate”, dated December 17, 2009, I stated what I felt were the positive impacts of our local universities and colleges not only on the real estate market in Boston but also on the general economy and job market. The impetus for my post was the recent purchase of the former Bayside Convention Center by UMASS but also included thoughts on the growth of Harvard in Allston.
I was pleased to see that a number of people brought a number of opinions to the fore, particularly regarding the Allston, or more specifically, North Allston development plans. From those who did not agree with me that Harvard’s expansion into North Allston was an eminently ideal development, I learned a great deal about what the points of confusion and anger are. From those who did support my view, I learned further about how others saw additional benefits to Harvard’s presence.
In fairness to those in opposition, particularly a number of people who are part of the Allston Brighton Community Blog, I took some time to do some first hand research. The primary complaint of the opposition was timing. Many felt that Harvard was unnecessarily 1) sitting on land, 2) not living up to a commitment to build and to provide new jobs, and 3) had forced out a number of important businesses.
I reviewed all of the public information prepared by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Harvard, and the very active Allston Community Planning Group. I can say that there has been no shortage of effort and creativity in the joint planning for North Allston. But I can also say that I do not accept the claims of the opposition.
1. Is Harvard “sitting on land?”
The answer is yes. Harvard has been sitting on land in North Allston since the turn of the century. Harvard Stadium opened in 1903; the Business School in 1924. Of the 200 acres of land Harvard owns in North Allston, 100 acres have been owned by decades.
The recently acquired 100 acres represent a coherent and concentrated assembly of land along Western Avenue, North Harvard Street, Soldiers Field Road, and adjacent streets. Any entity, in planning to construct a major facility, be it scientific labs or a sneaker factory, must assure that it purchases sufficient land to enable the scope of development necessary to accommodate its plans.
Harvard’s purchase of land actually led to a master plan for over 760 acres of land in North Allston. From a planning standpoint alone, Harvard’s purchase triggered intense public scrutiny of what the community wanted not only Harvard but anyone to do or not do in North Allston.
Sitting on land is a bit of a vague term, but I think I understand the complaints of those who feel that Harvard may just be buying up buildings and land with no purpose in mind. There has been very little construction other than the completion of the foundation of the new Science Center and Harvard’s work in assisting in the development of the new Charlesview Apartments, approved today by the City.
But, in looking through every document issued by the city, by Harvard, and by the community, nowhere will one find a time-specific commitment made by Harvard or by the Community to build or occupy space at any time. In fact, I will quote from the report “Strategic Framework for Planning, Thomas M. Menino, Mayor of Boston; Mark Maloney, Director, Boston Redevelopment Authority, May, 2005” (see References).
This report was prepared by the BRA, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, and the North Allston Community Planning Group, consisting of forty representatives of residents, businesses, institutions, and non-profits with interests in the area. I know that term “community group” is often overused and rather amorphous. I included a list of all of the members at the end of this post. This group was later expanded in 2009 to include 30 additional local entities.
In this report, which is one of many reports of which reference is made at the end of this post, the following statement is made quite prominent:
“It was understood that the planning framework’s timeframe would
cover the next 20 years of a development strategy that would occupy
Harvard over the next 50 years.”
Yes, Harvard is sitting on land. But they are doing so in accordance with a plan that the community approved. While I can understand that this may upset some members of the community, I think it is fair to say that any member of the community has had ample opportunity to air his or her thoughts.

2. Has Harvard reneged on its promise of new development and new jobs?
The answer is no. In some ways, this is another way of phrasing the issue of sitting on land. Harvard made no commitment to immediately begin construction on any property or any commitment on dates when specific jobs may be available. However, Harvard has already set up a separate office for all inquiries regarding future job opportunities at the Science Center and in North Allston in general. But the key issue is simple: Harvard in the most prestigious univerisity in the world, whether you like it or not. And I’m a Dartmouth guy having to write this! Its endowment, at over $27 Billion is nearly twice the size of Yale’s, which holds the second largest endowment. For local reference, BU, who has battled the community many times, has an endowment as well. Harvard’s endowment is 33 times the size of BU’s. Harvard receives more government research money than any other university. Its student body is over 18,000 and Harvard is the 3rd largest employer in the entire state.
The land that Harvard purchased in North Allston was primarily abandoned industrial space, weeded asphalt lots, truck depots, rail yards, and an assortment of low-end retail. Other than the soon to be redeveloped Charlesview, there were and are no residents. Yes, I recognize that people miss Charlesbank Cleaners, the VW dealer, and Kmart. But if anybody thinks that those uses are what is best for North Allston in the long run, as opposed to simply the possibility that Harvard will build, then I will say that is not only shortsighted but preposterous. There’s a reason North Allston has been economically dead for decades. Nobody has had any interest in building anything there. Harvard is the Golden Goose. Is it good for Harvard? You bet. In fact, it’s perfect. Is it good for the community? Consider the alternatives. There are none.

3. Has Harvard forced out a number of businesses?
The answer is yes, and this was addressed above. The real questions are; 1) what is the impact on the community of the departure of these businesses in the long run? 2) what will Harvard do with the vacant properties it now owns and 3) what is the long term value to North Allston and to the City in Harvard’s purchases?
1) The departure of the local businesses, while perhaps temporarily inconvenient, has no impact on North Allston in the long run. The businesses were primarily small retail establishments providing few jobs and few tax dollars to the City.
2) Harvard has begun a very public leasing program for all of its vacant properties. On January 10, 2010, President Drew Faust specifically addressed the leasing program in her Letter to the Community of January 10, 2010. The link follows this post. (Harvard has made over 100,000 square feet available after renovating existing properties it purchased. In the past 10 months, Harvard has signed leases with six new companies, primarily research and technology tenants, and has signed a new lease with Mahoney’s Garden Center on Western Avenue that will significantly expand its outdoor market area in 2010. On the public side, this week Harvard opened a free skating rink on Western Avenue.

3) Long Term Value
When I speak of the “value” that Harvard brings with its purchases, I speak of what is known in the real estate industry as the “highest and best use” theory of land ownership. Simply put, every piece of land has a theoretical “best use”, defined in the private sector as that use which will return the greatest profit to the owner of the land over a given period of time. For example, the highest and best use for a parcel of land on State Street in Boston is not a gas station. But for a parcel on any within ½ mile of any exit of route 93, a gas station is ideal.
Measuring a return in terms of profit for Harvard is difficult since it is a non-profit and, by law, any surplus Harvard sees at the end of any measured period of time must be retained by the University, most typically through its endowment. But what of the community? What of its highest and best use? The community does not own the land, but it is the nature of our government that land planning is not only acceptable but is the norm throughout the country. Harvard cannot do whatever it wants to do nor has Harvard at any time not acknowledged this fact.
Earlier I said that Harvard and the community have both agreed that Harvard’s development plans are long-term. So how do we determine whether Harvard’s purchase of the land will result in the highest and best use not only for Harvard but for the community in the long term?
I reviewd 41 separated land purchases Harvard has made over the past 8 years. Harvard does not occupy any of these properties, which are all assessed by the City as “Commercial Land” or “Commercial.” In other words, Harvard pays real estate taxes on all of the 41 parcels.
The 41 parcels represent 38 acres of land or roughly 40% of the total land purchases made by Harvard. Property values for any purpose, including for tax assessment, use one or a combination of any of the following three methods: 1) by the use of comparative sales information; 2) by the use of replacement cost; or 3) by the income approach. Overwhelmingly, number 3, the income approach, is the method used by the City to determine assesed value of commercial properties. This is particularly the case in North Allston where there have been few comparable sales and where valuing a property based on the cost to build an outdated industrial building simply makes no sense. Land and property value is all about the potential income of the improvements made to the land, where improvements mean whatever is built on the land.
Public assessed values do not necessarily reflect what a given parcel of land or building will sell for in an open market sale. However, I used these values to determine the “potential” of Harvard’s land by analyzing comparing the assessed value of the 41 Harvard parcels with a sample of 23 developed properties in North Allston and Cambridge. Each of these parcels was “improved” by a midrise office or research and development building, the type of buildings Harvard is contemplating for North Allston.
To determine Harvard’s land “potential”, I looked at the ratio of assessed building value to assessed land value. I used this as a proxy for highest and best use, where the higher ratio is considered a higher and better use.
In the aggregate, the 41 parcels purchased by Harvard have a total assessed value, as of 2008, of $92 million, of which $60 million is assessed building value and $32 million is assessed land value. The ratio of assesed building to land values is 1.9. Of all of the 41 parcels, only 10 have a higher building value than land value.
In the 23 parcel survey of developed land in North Allston and Cambridge, the average ratio of assessed building value to assessed land value is 4.1. North Allston is woefully underdeveloped and this is reflected in the relative lack of value realization of the land in North Allston. And the only way that will change is when Harvard changes it. Will this also be better for the community? If we determine community benefit based on new development intended to house new employees, how can it not be?
In closing, let’s go back to the importance of Harvard to North Allston. Last week, Harvard went to the markets with a $460 million bond offer for capital projects. The bonds were rated AAA by both Moody’s and Standard & Poors’s, the highest rating possible. Only one company in the United States has an AAA rating—General Electric. And that rating is only from Moody’s. Standard & Poors lowered GE’s rating last March.
Thank you to all of my followers who keep me honest.
References and Information Sources:
From Boston Redevelopment Authority

1. Allston Strategic Planning Framework 2004
2. Harvard Allston Campus Planning and Institutional Master Plan 3/2006
3. Allston-Brighton Neighborhood Planning Initiative 2007.
5. North Allston-Brighton Community-Wide Plan (CWP) 2008.
From Harvard University
1. 2007 Harvard University Allston Campus Institutional Master Plan Notification Form
2. Letter to the Community, January 10, 2010

Members of the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Planning Group
*Paul Berkeley, Co-Chair
*Ray Mellone, Co-Chair
*Robert Alexander, resident
Teddy Arvanites, Cambridgeport Bank
Harris Band, Harvard University
State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios
Adam Berger, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes
*John Bruno, Brookline Bag & Paper
Jeffrey Bryan, resident
Jim Creamer, McNamara House
*Paul Creighton, resident
*Michael Curran, resident
*Rita DiGesse, resident
Josephine Fiorentino, Charlesview Apartments
*Ellin Flood-Murphy, resident and Gardner School
*Brian Gibbons, resident
State Representative Brian Golden
*Michael Hanlon, resident
Pastor Gary Andrew Heart, Hill Memorial Baptist Church
Father Daniel Hegarty, St. Anthony's Parish
State Representative Kevin Honan
*Proctor W. Houghton, Houghton Chemical
Paige Kane, CSX
Shirin Karanfiloglu, City of Boston
Shaun Keefe, Romar
Kevin McClusky, Harvard University
Councilor Jerry McDermott
Kathleen P. Phenix, Joe Smith Community Health Center
Juan M. Prieto, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes
Beth Shepard-Rabadam, Harvard University
State Senator Steve Tolman
Bob Van Meter, Allston-Brighton CDC

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Burying the Future -- Literally or should I say Figuratively

It’s getting harder and harder to find out who is actually opposing Cape Wind. But the bigger question is why?
We’ve been through the NIMBYs, which unfortunately include the Kennedys who apparently prefer that we carry out the creative new energy developments they so advocate just as long as they can’t see a sliver of silver in the ocean. And they have plenty of like-minded neighbors.
Then we have the self-important towns of the Cape, who literally tried to cut the cable before the cable was even laid. “Over my dead body will we deliver electric power to the entire Cape in my little town.” Fortunately the Federal government did remind the good old folks that electric transmission was Federal turf.
And now we have the Wampanoag Tribe, specifically the 91 people, per the 2000 census, who occupy the Aquinnah Reservation at Gay Head on the Vineyard. I have no issue with preserving cultural history. I want to make it very clear that I do not pretend to know the intricacies of Wampanoag culture. I know a bit of their history, gleaned primarily from their own website. They have every reason, just as I do if I had a reason, to oppose far offshore wind turbines.
But the last time I checked, the Wampanoag’s’ most important cultural desire was a casino. But that was before their tribal leader, the infamous Glenn Marshall, who failed to inform his tribe that he had been convicted of rape and fabricated his military record BEFORE he subsequently was sent to Federal prison for his actions while tribal leader for tax fraud, wire fraud, campaign law violations, you name it. But they still own sacred land in Middleborough—can you see the ocean from there?
The Wampanoag’s do not want windmills because, according to the release from the U.S. National Park Service, who concurred with the tribe and overturned a previous federal ruling allowing the windmills, a) Nantucket Sound was home to the Man-Giant Maushop and the Sea Woman Squant; b) there may be artifacts dating back 11,000 years ago when glaciation created a land plateau; and c) Nantucket Sound unto itself is a sacred place to the tribe.
• Let’s look at these for a moment. Maushop is not unlike Paul Bunyon. According to the Wampanoag website, he created the Elizabeth Islands by flinging sand from the ocean; he caught whales with his bare hands; and he could, in one step, go from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard. Bunyon operated out west but I think we put some windmills there.

a. Not that it matters I guess, but NO artifacts have actually been found. There are isolated areas of buried brush and forest where the sea came in but nobody has found a human artifact and certainly not one of the Wampanoag Tribe. Of course, the Park Service glosses over this nicely by saying such findings are “possible.” Wow, that opens up some territory. In fact, the Park Service stated that it was not customary to place entire bodies of water under cultural protection, especially so when the tribe and the Service have not completed the study of how the Sound defines the entire Wampanoag cultural area. Hey, it’s only Nantucket Sound. Oh, by the way, there was no Wampanoag tribe 11,000 years ago. According to their own website, they date themselves as an organized group to about 4,000 years ago. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the famous single tooth discovered at the “Rich Site” in Barnstable County several years ago could only be described as a “Paleo-Indian.” That means something that came before an Indian.

• I find Nantucket Sound sacred as well. There are no actual accounts of the Wampanoag tribes conducting any types of ceremonies with regard to specific times in the cycle of the seas. Of course, they cite Maushop, the Giant Man, and Squant, his Sea Woman lover who controlled all the winds and waves in the world, as evidence of sacred attachment.

There are estimated to be 2,000 Wampanoag’s alive today, but the vast majority are of mixed tribal ancestry. Of the 2,000, 1,200 live in Mashpee and the remainder lives in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. And the 91 members at Aquinnah who are managing, for whatever reason, to keep those oil tankers coming right across the ocean. Maybe we can barter—the casino for the windmills.

Boston would be a strange city if the 4/5 of it that are landfill were never filled. Not much room.