Like a Good Neighbor?

HRE and Cambridge

THERE'S A SAYING in Cambridge real estate circles: when Harvard talks, the market listens. Because the University is the largest commercial and residential landowner in the city, its policies have a great impact on the entire Cambridge real estate market, particularly Harvard Square.

That's why it's particularly disturbing to learn in mid-1987 that the University in 1986 spent a record $27.4 million to acquire six major properties. Why did the public have to learn about these purchases from the real estate listings in newspapers?

It's reasonable to expect Harvard Real Estate, Inc. to remain quiet before it makes a purchase in order to prevent the seller from realizing Harvard's intentions and boosting the sale price. But there's no excuse for secrecy after purchases are made--unless the University is trying to keep the rest of Cambridge from knowing one simple fact: namely, that Harvard is entering a new phase of institutional expansion.

For better or worse, Harvard's expansion--in this case, into the heart of Harvard Square--will set the business and residential climate for years to come. It seems only fair, then, that Cambridge taxpayers, lawmakers, and businessmen be informed about whether these land purchases are mere investments or whether they will be converted for University use.

Unfortunately, the lack of glasnost evident in this episode permeates the whole corporate structure of HRE, the University's in-house property management firm. Even when information does leak out about Harvard's real estate plans in Cambridge, University officials skirt the issues. Take the case of Harvard's recent bid on the DeWolfe St. property about to be put for lease by St. Paul's Church. While Harvard's $4 million offer appeared to provide for the low-income housing, the University in fact asked the church to fund the project. Harvard said it would automatically deduct $1 million from its offer if low-income housing were to be built there.

Furthermore, Harvard would make the church pay $5000 annually for 30 years in order to use the rectory building as low-income housing. If the Harvard bid is to be chosen on the basis of its community minded spirit, Harvard should have to pay for that spirit--and be upfront about the whole matter.

One tenant activist summed it up best in this comment on Harvard's real estate actions in the Square: "HRE has an attitude of the less said, the less known, the better." That's not the proper philosophy for Cambridge's number one corporate citizen.