Harvard Sprawls Across Region

Harvard University started out in the early 1600s as one house on an acre of land filled with grazing cows.

Now covering 192 acres with nearly 400 buildings in Cambridge alone, Harvard bears little resemblance to what it once was.

During the 20th century, the Harvard campus has grown at a rate of about one million square feet per decade in the city. With the University's continuing development in Cambridge and its acquisition of 52 acres of land in the Boston suburb of Allston, the expansion will continue well into the 21st century.

Learning lessons from a tussle with neighbors over a major building, Harvard is asking for more community input on its development as it realizes that determined residents do want a say.

The Knafel Conundrum

In Cambridge, the most contested areas of Harvard's expansion and development occur at the so-called "soft edges" where the campus meets the city, which are often next to large residential areas.

Why these areas? Simply because there is still room for new buildings there.

"What is still available to develop is all at the edge of the campus, which most directly affects residents," says Kathy Spiegelman, head of Harvard Planning and Real Estate.

Known for their activism, Cantabrigians haven't taken the expansion sitting down.

The current hot soft edge issue revolves around plans for the Knafel Center, Harvard's proposed 128,000-square-foot building for government and international studies near Gund Hall on Cambridge Street.

"Knafel is probably the biggest source of public tension," says Mary H. Power, Harvard's director of community relations for Cambridge. "It is emblematic of town-gown relations involving University planning."

The building, which is mostly funded by a $20 million donation to the University from Sidney R. Knafel '52, has undergone several rounds of planning, and is currently before the residents of Cambridge for their approval.

Many residents are concerned that the Knafel Center, which currently includes plans for a 150-seat lecture hall and a 140-seat cafe, will bring students too close to residential areas and change the atmosphere of the neighborhood.

"Some of us are nervous about campus activity this close to neighborhoods," says Elizabeth Kline, a member of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association (MCNA). "It's a question of whether we want the kind of traffic that is in front of the Science Center at noon every day near our homes."

MCNA President John R. Pitkin is also concerned about what effect the increased student population will have.

"It would be one of the densest parts of the campus right against the edge," Pitkin says. This is an extremely densely used area already. You can't imagine how many people are affected."

In early 1998, residents rejected the original plans for the building because of its unwieldy size in comparison to surrounding buildings. Harvard responded with an alternative plan of two smaller buildings, connected by an underground tunnel. Both Coolidge Hall as well as the University Information Services (UIS) building across the street would have to be demolished with the new plan.

Mary Power and building architect Harry Cobb spoke about Harvard's most recent changes in the plans for the Knafel Center to about 60 members of the Cambridge community at Sackler Auditorium last December.

After a long and detailed presentation, the meeting allowed residents to air the concerns they still have regarding the Knafel Center.

"It was a good process with an open exchange of thoughts," said Paul S. Grogan, vice president for government, community and public affairs. "We registered that we don't have a hearing problem."

But Cambridge activists are pushing for even more.

"It's a step in the right direction, but people still need time to reflect on what they heard," Pitkin says, referring to the revisions that the University proposed at the meeting.

The MCNA is still working on its next step. It will hold a meeting tonight to discuss the Knafel plans, and will also be discussing a subcommittee report on proposed guidelines for Harvard's soft-edge development.

"The bottom-line concern is whether or not this is the appropriate use [of development] in our transition zone," Kline says. "We want to maintain the balance and character of uses."

Residents are also still concerned about the appearance of the proposed Knafel building. Besides the building size issue, which is being addressed with the new two-building plan, many aspects of the layout and exterior surface of the building have yet to be resolved.

Architect Harry Cobb has proposed a light terracotta surface for the building, instead of the brick or stone that he said were "too institutional in this setting." However, some residents disagree.

"They think Harry's wonderful," Kline said. "But we think what they want looks like a hospital or some other bureaucratic, institutional structure."

The finalization of plans for the Knafel Center is still months away, with formal approval still needed from the city. If approved, construction of the Knafel Center would not begin until January of 2001.

Planning Ahead

Currently, Knafel is perhaps the thorniest example of town-gown relations. Even the conflicting interpretations of it show town-gown strife: while Harvard feels it has consistently handled Knafel worries well, residents have charged otherwise.

Some of the controversy surrounding the development of the Knafel Center has occurred because of the way the University originally approached the project, with some members of the surrounding neighborhood feeling that it was thrust on the community without its consideration.

"Knafel is essentially a development deal," Pitkin says. "It does not come out of a systematic thinking of how this area will work."

"Sometimes they hide behind legalities, talking about zoning and setbacks, and ignore the use concerns that we have," Kline says.

Powers, however, believes that the University has always had a "consistent commitment to community concerns," and plans to continue that commitment in future development.

As the University tries to develop and improve the look of the soft edges, residents say they have noticed a change in policy.

Along with plans along Banks Street, which runs along the eastern and southern edge of the campus near Mather House, transition-zone planning is also occurring on Hammond Street in the Agassiz neighborhood along the northern edge of the campus, where Harvard owns a large parking lot that could be a site of future development.

To match the Banks Street and Agassiz transition areas to their neighborhoods, the development office is proposing specific zoning codes for each transition area.

Residents are pleased with the approach that the University has taken with these future development areas.

"They are approaching it more as planning they have a vision of how it should work," Pitkin said.

Harvard's proposed plans for the Agassiz neighborhood significantly reduce the scale of future development, proposing to reduce the maximum allowable height of new buildings from 120 feet to 45 feet. Homes in the abutting residential neighborhood currently have a 35-foot maximum allowable height.

"We're essentially down-zoning ourselves," Power said.

Harvard also wants to create transition "buffers" between the institutional buildings and lower-scale residential areas in order to reduce the effects of development on neighborhoods. These include landscape setbacks, sloped building transition planes, and transition zoning districts between residential and institutional areas.

Harvard Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser, who lives in the Agassiz neighborhood, echoed Pitkin's praise of Harvard's work involving the Agassiz and Banks Street areas.

"They have done an extraordinary job of addressing the neighbors' feelings," Glaeser said. "It has been very pleasing to everyone."

The Allston Question

With land being snapped up in Cambridge, the University has been looking elsewhere for future development.

"No matter how successful we are at developing the edges, the land in Cambridge won't last," Spiegelman says.

One place that Harvard is looking is across the river in Allston, where the University has purchased 52 acres for eventual expansion.

"Allston has decades upon decades of potential growth," Spiegelman said. "It's an unbelievable opportunity for development."

Despite the initial outcry when Harvard secretly purchased the land through a real estate developer so that it would not be charged outrageous prices, residents of Allston have become more open to University development for the benefits it brings.

Allston is already home to the Harvard Business School as well as all of the University's athletic facilities, which are some of the most appealing parts of the city.

"Harvard's athletic facilities have some of the nicest green spaces in the area," says Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association and a member of the Allston-Brighton Community Task Force. "And if you've ever walked through the business school, you can see that it's an architectural oasis."

Residents hope that the further extension of Harvard's campus into Allston will help to change the industrial character of parts of the city, where many residential areas are near trucking, cement and construction operations.

"Right now, there is no real reason for people to walk around in that area," Berkeley says. "It's in the University's interest to improve it just as much as it is beneficial to us."

While Cambridge residents have reservations about having students so close to residential areas, Allston looks to benefit from the addition of students.

"Hopefully, it will bring some life back to the streets," Berkeley said.

The inlux of students to the area will most likely help local businesses as well.

"Students have a great amount of purchasing power," Harvard's Speigelman says. "It makes the quality of living better."

Allston residents' relations with the University have been smooth for the most part. While they, like their Cambridge counterparts, have asked to be included in planning, Harvard has acquiesced.

"We have had a very productive working relationship," says Kevin A. McCluskey '76, Harvard's director of community relations for Boston. "I view the process not so much as them working against Harvard's future growth, but working with us to ensure that Harvard's future growth in Allston benefits the residents of Allston as well as the members of the Harvard community."

Getting the Message

The lesson Harvard's development office seems to have learned from Cambridge is that, even with plans far into the future, little is possible without the approval and support of the surrounding community.

It has undertaken several initiatives to do so. The most major one came this fall, when Harvard announced a multi-million dollar initiative using University money to fund affordable housing in Cambridge and Boston over the next 20 years.

And it's putting its money where its mouth is, working with neighborhoods on future projects that will benefit both Harvard and the residents.

Although still very much in the preliminary stages of discussion, the University is working on plans for creating a new museum of modern art on a site along the Charles River that Harvard currently leases to Mahoney's Garden Center.

Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums James Cuno sent out two batches of letters to Cambridge community members in February and November to inform them of the idea.

"We were interested in letting the community know that we were exploring the possibility for a museum," Power says. "We wanted to share as much information as possible."

Architect Renzo Piano's preliminary sketches for the possible project were also included in the letter to neighbors.

While residents have been skeptical of Harvard's development in the past, the University hopes that getting out ideas and thoughts early will ease the process.

"This has the possibility of being positively received," says Martha Eddison Sieniewicz, a Riverside neighborhood resident and representative of the Joint Committee for Neighborhood and Harvard Consultation. "I am hopeful, since this is one of the last parcels of land to develop, that we can work together with the University to bring something very positive."

The same hopes exist in Allston. After the University's original purchase of land across the river, Harvard wanted to do something in order to show goodwill toward the city, so it donated a portion of land to the city in order to build an Allston branch public library.

Although the University is not involved with the designing or building of the future library, the architectural firm for the building, Machado & Silvetti, is the same firm being used for Harvard's graduate student housing project in Allston. A groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the library will be held today.

With last year's hiring of Grogan--a specialist in town-gown relations--the University is making a conscious effort to be a good neighbor.

"It's about explaining ourselves and making our role visible," Grogan says.

As the giant of a university tends to community concerns, it seems it is no longer just looking out for number one.