Residents Split Over Museum Proposal

In a heated two-hour meeting Wednesday night, Cambridge residents took on Harvard's community relations officers, loudly criticizing the University's plans to build an art museum in their largely residential neighborhood.

Many residents said the proposed museum--that would be built on the stretch of Memorial Drive property just south of Peabody Terrace and Mather House--would block their view of the Charles River and bring even more traffic to an already congested area.

"I live in this little white house that looks like a little monopoly house next to Harvard's hotels," said one resident who lives on the edge of the campus.

"We have traffic already," added another resident. "You coming with a museum doesn't help us."

Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums James B. Cuno said the University has plans to look at the impact of a museum on traffic congestion this summer.

He said, however, that the use of an underground parking garage, as well as high usage by students, would decrease the traffic impact.

"Most people who would use the museum would be students, therefore they don't drive cars," Cuno said.

Still, residents at the meeting pointed to Harvard's latest expansion plans as proof of the University's ongoing disregard for Cambridge's needs.

Some even pointed to the construction of Peabody Terrace in the 1970s as a prime example of the poor dialogue that exists between Harvard and the Riverside community.

"You seem like a nice person and so does Travis, but you represent Harvard," one resident said, addressing Mary H. Power, Harvard's senior director of community relations, and Travis McCready, the recently appointed director of community relations for Cambridge.

"There's a lot of mistrust and that's not going to change quickly," he added.

Wednesday night's meeting was McCready's first public exposure to Cambridge residents.

Hostilities erupted when McCready tried to shift from the meeting's open forum to begin a presentation of the architect's plans for the museum.

"You are not gonna keep doing that," yelled one resident. "Harvard has not spoken to us in 30 years. You talk to us. You don't present to us."

The Other Side

Still, several residents stood in support of hearing out the University's plans for an art museum--a project that has received much support from outgoing University President Neil L. Rudenstine and his wife Angelica, an art aficionado.

"There are some of us in this community interested in talking about a museum," one resident said, in response to the more vocal critics in attendance.

Other residents said both Harvard and the Riverside community could benefit from a museum, with one resident saying he would appreciate having a museum that his son could visit.

"The idea that he could walk to a museum is great," he said. "It would give my kid a place to go on early release days and days off [from school]."

Others said the residents could have the University improve the neighborhood in exchange for community support for the project.

"The community center roof is held together by duct tape," one resident said. "If we told them what problems there are, they might be able to help us."

Museum director Cuno gave a brief presentation on the current plans, saying that they were conceptual and still very flexible. He said that architect Renzo Piano's design would be sensitive to neighborhood needs.

"These are not designs but concepts," he said, referring to the wooden museum model and numerous posters of plans that he presented.

A Problematic Process But regardless of the outcome, some residents said they simply wish the University had consulted them earlier in the planning process.

"I think the quality of the process is the problem," said city councilor Kenneth E. Reeves '72. "I would like there to be a coherent respect of the community process before the plans are made."

But others said the University has approached the residents in the only way they could.

"If they would have come sooner and said 'Hey, we have some vague idea about building something here,' they would have been attacked for not having a plan," said one Banks Street resident.

McCready emphasized that public meetings were the best way to create continual dialogue about Harvard's plans.

"We understand that trust is not going to be built overnight," he said.

The University last held a meeting with residents on May 10, but poor publicity of the event created the need for another discussion.

Cambridge resident Phyllis Baumamn said the University should support the Loose Petition--a moratorium on development in the Riverside area for 18 months. Residents have collected signatures supporting the petition.

"What's the rush?" Baumamn said. "It seems to me an act of good faith for Harvard to support that. A moratorium sets the framework for the process."

But Cuno said that no development would occur in the next 18 months anyways, making the moratorium a moot point.

"If we were to get the green light today, it would still be two years before we could break ground," Cuno said, adding that, at the earliest, the museum would not be completed until 2005.

Power added that pushing the petition through the Cambridge City Council would only delay discussions with the Riverside community.

"We can offer assurances without the legal issues," Power said. "We don't think [the moratorium] would move us forward."

But many residents continually voiced their belief that a museum was not the right use of the limited space. Some pointed to creating affordable housing as a more pressing priority.

"We do not house collections before we house people," one resident said.

Resident Cob Carlson suggested the University's land holdings in Allston as a possible museum site.

"Everyone knows that Harvard is expanding in that direction," Carlson said. "The museum could be your anchor for new development."

But Cuno said that the Riverside location is ideal due to its close proximity to undergraduates.

"Our primary constituency is with Harvard undergraduate students," Cuno said.

But resident Diane M. Leone responded with disapproval.

"You have a responsibility to this neighborhood," she said. "Students come and go, but we live here."