AT THE BEGINNING of this decade, Harvard embarked on an aggressive campaign to patch up its longstanding differences with the Cambridge community. University officials set up neighborhood advisory boards to solicit local residents' opinions on town-gown matters. Cooperation between Harvard and its neighbors peaked in 1981 during the planning of a nearby office and condominium complex.
In 1985, however, that spirit of cooperation and mutual respect is quickly deteriorating. Recent episodes of town-gown friction suggest that Harvard officials are once again set on a destructive course toward antagonism and distrust.
Proof of Harvard's increasing arrogance towards the community is no more evident than at 8-10 Mt. Auburn St., the site of a proposed dormitory for University affiliates. On the surface, Harvard wants to raze a 93-year-old building to construct 50 units of housing, but has encountered widespread opposition from the neighborhood. What really scares area residents about the project is the pattern of University expansion across their neighborhood's landscape--from Peabody Terrace to Leverett House and from Mather House to this new dorm. Unfortunately, Harvard officials have only bowed to community pressure in this case when city laws have forced them to do so.
There's more. Down at City Hall, Harvard has consistently used its muscle as Cambridge's largest landlord to oppose new zoning petitions designed to limit real estate development. Even when the community's best interest is at stake, Harvard has pursued its own agenda and systematically opposed height restrictions and preservation measures in Harvard Square. Last spring the University even thwarted a legislative effort to require commercial developers to build low income housing in the city.
In yet another issue, the city's rent control advocates see Harvard's preferential sales of property to faculty members as a means of displacing local residents in favor of professors. University officials have admitted that their property sales to Harvard faculty members are not designed solely to help poor professors find housing in this tight housing market; they're also out to make a fast buck on buildings sometimes valued at $400,000. In the process, they're displacing longterm tenants of these buildings who were once protected under rent control.
All these troubles mean that annual picnics with Derek Bok in the Yard, the publication of a pamphlet touting community services, and student volunteers in Cambridge schools are simply not enough. Unless Harvard shows greater respect for the surrounding community by working side by side with its leaders, complicated urban problems affecting both the University and the city will never be resolved.
Instead of using its financial and legal clout to bully its neighbors, Harvard must work more constructively to alleviate tensions over poor real estate management, expansion into local neighborhoods, and the University's exemption from local taxation.