City Residents Criticize Harvard Tunnel Proposal

Digging permit final hurdle for controversial Government Center

BIG DIG
David M. Gliklich

TOM MURRAY, project manager for the Harvard Center for Government and International Studies, presents the plan for a tunnel under Cambridge St. at last night’s public hearing at City Hall

The center formerly known as Knafel came under fire again last night—this time for a tunnel crucial to its current design. The tunnel, under busy Cambridge Street, would connect the two main buildings of the renamed Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) planned for the northeast fringe of campus.

In a public hearing last night at City Hall, frustrated Cambridge residents tried to win one battle against the major new academic center by arguing that the proposed passageway—which would take two years to complete—would make construction significantly more disruptive.

The City Council will have to grant Harvard permission to dig the tunnel—a step that represents residents’ last chance to fight against CGIS, which has already received the go-ahead from other city agencies.

“All the neighbors I have met understand the reality of [CGIS],” said William C. Craig, a retired civil engineer who lives nearby the planned center. “[Harvard is] going to throw that project away just because of a tunnel? I can’t conceive it.”

Though he said he realizes CGIS is “guaranteed” to go forward with or without an underground connector, Craig plans to keep up the fight against the tunnel.

For nearly five years, the University and residents have locked horns over the design and location of the center, which will house Harvard’s government department and a dozen other research centers.

Though plans for the center itself have been settled, the tunnel remains a contentious issue standing in the way of Harvard’s most prominent building project in Cambridge. To build the tunnel numerous underground utilities would have to be rerouted. Cambridge Street would not be closed during construction, but temporary bridges would be erected across the street to carry traffic and pedestrians.

Last night’s public hearing at City Hall marked residents’ first chance to speak out against this plan. Many complained that the passage would block future utility lines and said the lengthy construction would disrupt the neighborhood without any benefit to residents.

“Having a safe and decent place to live is an entitlement,” said Nancy B. Young, who lives a block away from the proposed CGIS site on Cambridge Street. “Having a nice office is not an entitlement.”

Neighborhood leaders also said they worried that students would crowd the residential area, since plans for CGIS include several major classrooms.

Harvard officials insist the tunnel will improve safety on Cambridge Street by moving pedestrian traffic underground.

And the University will make “heroic efforts” to ensure construction does not disrupt the neighborhood, said Mary H. Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations.

While neighborhood leaders asked why the University’s need for space couldn’t be satisfied by the well-publicized acreage in Allston, a Harvard official said that construction across the River would be five years too late.

“The need is now. The need was years ago,” said David A. Zewinski ’76, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for physical resources and planning.

Whether or not the city will grant Harvard permission to dig the tunnel remains unclear. The city’s planning board will need to approve an easement allowing the University to dig under the street. Later, the City Council will have to add its own seal of approval—which is likely to take well into 2002.

By voting down the tunnel the council would “discredit” and “alienate” the boards that have already approved the CGIS project, Zewinski said. And without the tunnel, CGIS planners would be forced to return to the drawing board.

According to current plans, only one of the two buildings will have a loading dock, and supplies would be shuttled to the second building through the tunnel. Without that passage, the University would have to add a loading dock to the second building—reducing the amount of green space around the center.

At yesterday’s Faculty meeting, responding to questions about what could be done to speed up the CGIS project, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles urged professors to turn out for community discussions.

“This is a moment where we all must add to the competitive clamor and not allow the views of a few neighbors to dominate the discussions,” Knowles told the Faculty.

Theda Skocpol, Thomas professor of government and sociology, said she came to the meeting as a city resident and as a professor who will “hopefully have an office in the CGIS.”

“Harvard University is not simply a big rich institution that Cambridge has to deal with—it certainly is that—but it is also a lot of people who are trying to carry on their work likes, many of whom are also voters and residents of Cambridge,” Skocpol said.

One Step Closer

The University did get one step closer to making CGIS a reality Monday night, when a city board approved a deal between Harvard and neighborhood residents, outlining how construction will affect the neighborhood and how the University will handle disputes that arise during construction.

For months, residents have pressed University officials about the noise and traffic disruption that construction work will entail—according to Harvard officials, trucks will come and go from the site every 10 minutes during peak construction times.

The University has agreed to update residents weekly on construction, to repave streets traveled by heavy trucks and to meet with residents regularly to handle complaints about noise, dust and other construction-related issues.

Many residents, remembering three years of disruptive sewer construction on Cambridge Street in the late ’90s, said they were especially wary of another round of construction that would mean tearing up the street.

But Harvard insists that residents have no cause for alarm this time around.

“We’re going light years beyond what the city did,” Zewinski said.

—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at dorgan@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at holbr@fas.harvard.edu.