Open-Minded Modern Art

New Harvard museum along the river should help mend town-gown relations, in style

Over the past several months, University representatives and Cambridge residents have been meeting together to study future development in the city’s Riverside neighborhood, a process brought about by Harvard’s proposals for a new modern art museum along the Charles River. While both sides originally appeared somewhat willing to cooperate and to find a mutually beneficial solution, it is now clear that a significant number of Riverside residents are opposed to any Harvard development on the Mahoney’s Garden Center site. Rather than treat the issue as “Custer’s Last Stand,” as the chair of the Cambridge study committee formed to discuss the museum has described it, residents must work constructively with Harvard to enable the University to expand in as community-friendly a manner as possible.

It is certainly true, as the residents assert, that Harvard has made serious development mistakes in the past. Mather House and Peabody Terrace spring immediately to mind. But Riverside residents must remember that an art museum, unlike a towering concrete dormitory, could also provide benefits to the community. If properly designed and implemented, a new museum should be a tasteful, unobtrusive, low-rise building that provides for increased traffic—possibly including an underground parking garage.

Harvard should also work with the city of Cambridge to ensure that the museum is a resource for those who live near it; whether by granting Cambridge residents free access, by operating educational programs in partnership with Cambridge schools or by building a public sculpture garden to complement the works displayed inside, the museum could become a neighborhood asset rather than an eyesore.

Harvard has made a good-faith effort to talk to Cantabrigians about their concerns, and it should continue to include residents in the consultative process about development. But to hold up their side of the bargain, Cambridge residents must be open-minded to Harvard’s ideas. They cannot dismiss development proposals out of hand because Harvard has made errors in the past. Suggestions to give away the land to Cambridge for affordable housing or recommendations to move the museum to Allston do not contribute anything to the collaborative process. Harvard owns the property, and the residents should not prevent its beneficial development simply because they do not want to live near a Harvard building.

Cambridge residents should work with the University to influence the museum’s design instead of denying Harvard’s request outright. We sincerely hope that the Riverside committee will be able to reach a solution that serves both Cambridge and Harvard well.