Council Rejects Neighborhood Petition To Limit Development Near Harvard

The City Council defeated a petition to limit development along the Charles River on Monday night, ending a neighborhood group's three-year campaign to prevent Harvard and private developers from building apartment complexes in the area.

The Riverside petition, one of many submitted to the Council in an attempt to slow development in Cambridge, received only five of the body's nine votes, and seven were required for passage.

Cambridge law requires that rezoning proposals must normally receive six votes to pass, and the requirement rises to seven if the owners of 20 percent or more of the affected area protest the bill. The district includes Mather House, the Leverett Towers, Peabody Terrace, and other Harvard-owned buildings.

Harvard Planning Director Kathy A. Spiegelman said the University objected to the bill because it would have greatly reduced the amount of housing Harvard could build on a Western Ave. site in the parcel.

"Harvard's biggest objection was that the Growers' Market is potentially a housing site," said Spiegelman, referring to an undeveloped parcel of land at the corner of Western Ave. and Memorial Drive. Under existing zoning regulations, Harvard would be permitted to build 320 units of housing on the site, Spiegelman said, and the petition would reduce that limit to 80 units.

"It was considered to be a real loss for the University," she said, adding that Harvard had been in contact with several of the other larger property owners in the area.

The proposal was assembled by community residents represented by the Riverside Organization of Cambridge (ROC), which began the process with a survey of the area three years ago. The petition proposed making the area exclusively residential and banning institutional, commercial, and industrial development.

The petition, filed last November, was aimed at limiting special privileges now accorded to townhouse-style developments, which its supporters say increases the density of development in the neighborhood. The petition would have limited the height of all developments to 35 feet and set guidelines for roof styles.

"We wanted to set guidelines for what the community is now," said ROC organizer Bill Cunningham. "[City planners] don't write them according to what's there now, but according to an ideal view."

The Cambridge Planning Board reviewed the petition and made suggestions for amendments. But ROC representatives said incorporating theseamendments would have required lengthynegotiations to satisfy different elements in thecommunity's coalition.

And Councillor Saundra M. Graham, who supportedthe petition, said compromise was all butimpossible in any case. "Even if we had tried toamend it, there weren't the votes," she said.

"Their rights are serviced over the rights ofthe people who live there," Graham said of theinstitutions and developers.

"I don't think they think we count," Grahamsaid of the zoning petition's opponents on theCouncil. The Councillor, whose political baseincludes Riverside and Cambridgeport, said theCouncil has also defeated petitions for therezoning of the River Street, Putnam Ave., andWestern Ave. areas within the Riverside district.

Harvard and the Metropolitian DistrictCommission (MDC) which controls public lands,including the park along the Charles River, comprise thelarger real estate interests in the area, alongwith several absentee landlords, said Cunningham.

ROC organizer Anne Toop said the MDC PlanningBoard initially expressed enthusiastic support forthe petition's downzoning proposal, but laterjoined Harvard in opposing the measure, saying theland should not be zoned at all.