Is Harvard Just Another Big Landlord?

The University's Local Lobbying

"We're a big fish in a small pond in Cambridge."

Director of State Relations Richard J. Doherty.

"In many ways, Cambridge is a company town."

Michael H. Turk, head of the Cambridge Tenants' Union.

On the national and state levels, Harvard's lobbying campaigns have most often backed traditionally liberal or idealistic goals such as increased appropriations for student aid and the free flow of scientific information.

But here in Cambridge, local politicians and community activists say the University's goals are very pro-business and are often no more idealistic than those of the next developer.

Harvard and the city clash most frequently over the University's property interests, on such issues as zoning changes, Harvard Square development, the obligations of developers and the status of the University's affiliated housing.

The University has also lobbied against various proposals to restrict different types of research, but the major disputes surround Harvard's role as a landowner, not as a leader in higher education.

"Harvard's interest in no different from that of other major landowners," says City Councillor David E. Sullivan.

And Harvard's director of state relations, Richard Doherty, agrees that "town-gown friction is really most evident around the issue of real estate."

On issues from zoning to animal research, Harvard gets its way in Cambridge City Hall--in many cases, City Councillors say, against the wishes of community residents. Some add that the University's wealth readily translates into political power on the local level.

"The issue is the amount of property that Harvard owns and Harvard acting as a real estate developer," says Vice Mayor Alice K. Wolf. "As a real estate developer, they're in it for dough. In that role, their interests can be diametrically opposed to the interests of the city."

In response, Harvard officials contend that their institution's wealth does not give it disproportionate influence in City Hall, and that the University's stances do not run counter to the public interest.

"We are large property owners and the largest taxpayer in the city and because of that we have a great deal at stake," says Harvard's Associate Vice President for State and Community Affairs Jacqueline O'Neill, who handles local lobbying efforts. "We are obligated to protect our interests for the welfare of students, faculty and staff."

Harvard and MIT hold nearly half of the land in Cambridge, and the University says it contributes more than $100 million to the local economy. The University is wealthier than the city of Cambridge and, many say, more powerful. And Harvard has a number of tools at its disposal in its lobbying efforts.

Under state law, anyone who owns 20 percent or more of the land affected by a zoning change may, by objecting, force the City Council to pass it by a vote of seven to two, rather than the usual six to three. Critics of the University say the provision inevitably stacks the deck in Harvard's favor on real estate issues.

In July, that stricture killed a proposal that would have tightened existing restrictions on development in Harvard Square and thus affected two University-affiliated commercial projects. The votes of Councillors William H. Walsh, Walter J. Sullivan and Sheila T. Russell were sufficient to stop it.

"Harvard used its ownership of property to require seven votes from the Cambridge City Council, and that is a threat in many of our zoning petitions," Wolf says. "It shows how the law is skewed towards property owners."

"That doesn't even involve lobbying. That's just using muscle," says Michael H. Turk, head of the Cambridge Tenants' Union and a longtime campaigner against Harvard's role as a landlord.

While she conceded that Harvard is usually seen as a "Goliath" in the city, O'Neill denied that the University has overwhelming clout with city officials.

O'Neill argues that the way zoning laws change is, if anything, "weighted towards citizen activism," because petitions for tighter zoning limits need only the signature of 10 city residents to get a hearing from the City Council. "It's not that the system favors us," she says. "It's very easy for any citizen to promulgate regulations."

In interviews over the past several years, O'Neill has stressed repeatedly that Harvard has become more sensitive towards city neighborhoods. She says Harvard neither would nor could build such architectural testaments to the University's dominance as Holyoke Center, Peabody Terrace and the new portion of Quincy House.

Even David Sullivan, the author of the city ordinance limiting institutional expansion, says he's noticed a "mellowing trend" in recent years in the University's lobbying efforts. "They've taken a less confrontational approach than in the past, and that's certainly appreciated," Sullivan said.

But while they find it more subtle these days, community activists say the pressure continues.

Turk is quick to say that Harvard benefits from a "revolving door" between state and city staff. He cites the case of Harvard's Planning Director, Kathy Spiegelman, who serves on a variety of community boards as an official or unofficial representative of the University.

Before coming to Harvard, Spiegelman served as director of the city's Community Development Department, a fact that Turk says gives her status and influence on both sides of the town-gown line.

"Kathy Spiegelman is someone who knows all the City Councillors, knows how the city government works and can therefore weigh in on those issues [that affect Harvard]," Turk said.

Spiegelman was out of town and unavailable for comment.

The University also can make its presence felt on various city zoning committees. Critics say such representation on local boards gives the University another way to exert undue influence on certain issues.

"What you see often is [Harvard's] enormous muscle and strength where University personnel appear on boards here, there and everywhere," Turk said. "Generally, there's one or more seats available to the University, as if they should have influence on the outcome."

"Certainly, it plays in their favor to be on the Harvard Square Advisory Board," Wolf says. "I don't think their presence is inappropriate, but the question is whether the other members of the committee are chosen in such a way so as to be favorable to the University."

The Harvard Square Advisory Board was created in the summer of 1986 to oversee the enforcement of a special Harvard Square zoning district limiting the height, placement and appearance of buildings within it more severely than elsewhere.

The committee of 13--including one Harvard representative and seven representatives of neighborhood associations, is one of several city panels whose approval is necessary for any major architectural change in the area.

"One out of 13 doesn't seem like an unfair influence," O'Neill contends.

Defending the University's presence on such local committees, O'Neill says that Harvard representatives are often called in for technical assistance on housing and real estate issues. For example, she said city officials invited Spiegelman to serve on the board of the Housing Trust Fund because of her experience and expertise in housing matters.

"Her contributions on that committee are positive," O'Neill says. "I don't see her presence as a detriment" to the city.

O'Neill adds that the University's representatives in city committees generally do not vote on issues affecting Harvard.

Another way the University can make its influence felt is by moving negotiations to its own territory. Turk says Harvard used this tactic in 1985 at a meeting of tenant activists, University lawyers and city officials. The activists, including Turk, charged Harvard Real Estate with neglecting the Craigie Arms apartment building.

That meeting, held at the Faculty Club, had the effect of making him "feel like an outsider at a city meeting," said Turk.

In such cases, Turk says "Harvard will use its facilities to change the terms" of debate. Meetings on Harvard property serve the tactical purpose of establishing that Harvard's legitimacy is "stronger and firmer" than the city's, he said. They also give the impression that the University is "trying to smooth things over with the city."

O'Neill says, however, that meetings on Harvard-owned property do not prejudice the discussion or deter participants from criticizing the University.

"I've had community meetings at the Faculty Club," O'Neill says. "I've never seen anyone constrained in these meetings."

O'Neill added that discussions on University grounds usually occur at the request of city officials. "We'll meet with anyone on anybody's turf," she says.

When the University lobbies on the local level, its representatives often work through individual talks with City Councillors. Less often, the lobbyists ask academic experts to testify at Council meetings.

Although she says, "I can't say I feel pressure" from University lobbyists, Vice Mayor Alice K. Wolf acknowledges that "there has been very strong lobbying" on a number of issues.

City Councillor William H. Walsh says he finds the Harvard presence "very influential" in City Hall.

"They have the name and it's a pretty powerful institution and they can put together an extensive lobbying campaign," Walsh said. "They have a constant public-private lobbying effort."

In a pinch, if low-key pressure fails, Harvard lobbyists "can put out a P.R. campaign that can cost a few thousand dollars," says Ole Anderson, director of the Cambridge Committee for Responsible Research, an animal rights group.

Last fall, his organization tried unsuccessfully to put a referendum limiting experimentation on the ballot. Within weeks, Harvard, MIT and several commercial researchers had formed a political group, begun raising funds and commissioned a poll to gauge public views of laboratory animal use.

Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, the best-known Council critic of the University, says he often writes back to the Corporation and the Board of Overseers to express his opposition to Harvard's stands.

Although he says University officials never lobby him personally, Vellucci says his method of responding to particularly intense Harvard pressure is to "put [the issue] on the table and bring [it] to the attention of a lot of people."

"Our relationship to government is like any constituent's," O'Neill says. "I don't like to see it as an adversarial relationship." The fact that others disagree means it's likely to keep Cambridge politics interesting for some time to come.