Knafel Center Faces Stubborn City Opposition

Public board delays decision amid tensions

Before the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Commission (MCNDC) and an entrenched but quiet public opposition, Harvard continued its attempts to secure city approval for its proposed Knafel Center in another hearing last night.

But prolonged discussion forced yet another postponement of the date the board will offer a verdict on Harvard's proposal--a decision that would allow or prevent the construction of a building more than two years in the planning.

Even at this point, the architectural plans remain a work in progress.

Harvard's architect came to last night's meeting with a slightly revised design for the building, hoping that the new plan for smaller and more vertical windows might quell concerns expressed in previous hearings by giving the building a "less serious feel."

However, the change did not receive direct approval from the public, which proved to be more concerned with the probable increase in traffic and the intrusiveness of the building as a whole.

Were Harvard to receive approval from the MCNDC, plans would likely undergo further alterations as the proposal passes through other city boards for approval. Each board would have the power to block Knafel construction.

But the MCNDC, as the representative of neighborhood concerns, is given the greatest jurisdiction over the plan as a whole. The result is a process that MCNDC chair John Moos described as "painstakingly detailed, to put it charitably."

Last night's hearing assessed the impact of only the Knafel South building. The center in its entirety is slated to replace both the University Information Services Building and Coolidge Hall, and would cross under Cambridge Street with an underground tunnel.

Especially troublesome to neighborhood residents was Harvard's admission that classrooms in the center could be used by the extension school during the evenings. Many characterize the current parking situation as uncomfortably tight and argue that any increase in traffic--whether from night students or dignitaries visiting one of the international study centers--would be intolerable.

"Living in this area during rush hour is like living in a motorcade," one resident said. "Even minimal changes will have an enormous impact on the neighborhood."

A number of neighbors came forward with suggestions for changes they said would make the building less intrusive to the neighborhood--modifications like moving the entrance of the south building from Prescott Street to Cambridge Street and increasing the building's distance from the nearest apartment.

But according to one resident, the fact that neighbors are suggesting alterations does not mean they have become any more accepting of Harvard's plan to build the center in their neighborhood.

"Everyone can come up with things that might make it better, but that still doesn't mean that anyone wants it at all," he said.