Harvard announced last night that it bought a 120-housing unit project on the old Polaroid plot in Cambridgeport, provoking sharp criticism from local activists who said they had fought developers to win a housing contract on that plot for city residents.
Harvard Planning and Real Estate (HPRE) Vice President Kathy A. Spiegelman said the contract was signed yesterday with builders Spaulding & Slye Colliers. The housing will be used for Harvard faculty and perhaps graduate students, but the Cambridge-mandated “affordable housing” units will be open to all city residents. Spiegelman said.
Spiegelman announced the purchase at the city’s annual town-gown report presentation last night. Report topics ranged from Harvard’s mission to President Lawrence H. Summers’ new goals to the University’s role as an “economic engine” in the region.
The talk focused on the “alignment of campus and community values” and “shared challenges,” according to the report.
But the announcement of Harvard’s newest purchase provoked heckling—including calls of “you should just stop” and questions over whether Harvard professors are really Cambridge residents—from a capacity crowd of residents.
In 1998, the plan for the old Polaroid plot had contained a 577-car garage, which residents protested would bring excess traffic. Six local activists, calling themselves the Cambridge Neighborhood Initiative, sued the plot’s developers to protest the garage plan. In 1999 Polaroid and Spaulding & Slye Colliers announced a plan to build three residential buildings instead of a garage.
Several local activists spoke in protest after hearing of Harvard’s purchase, claiming that they envisioned the housing for Cambridge residents and not Harvard faculty.
“I don’t want [Harvard faculty] living in my neighborhood, because they’re not going to make that neighborhood a part of who they are,”said Elizabeth Glazer, who identified herself as one of the residents who joined the 1999 suit against the developers.
Glazer and several others asked that the University house its staff, instead of its faculty, in the units.
“If this were housing for [staff] people, I feel it would be stable,” Glazer said.
Local activist Eli Yarden also protested Harvard’s purchase, saying that in pushing for the housing contract, residents had originally tried to make sure the buildings were structured in a welcoming way.
“I did not suspect for two moments that instead of a physically gated community, we would get an intellectually gated community,” Yarden said. “No neighborhood was ever consulted.”
After public comment, Spiegelman defended the status of Harvard faculty members in Cambridge neighborhoods.
“They are legitimate members of this community,” Spiegelman said, before the crowd shouted her down with calls like “We are too!”
Another issue discussed at the meeting was whether the University should present Cambridge with a “master plan” for its building projects.
Spiegelman said the city groups that plan building projects prefer to review each project separately.
But John Pitkin, who has spent years working on a plan to build the Center for Government and International Studies, said that the building-by-building approach will make it “very difficult” for the entire project to come together.
“What do residents need to do if they want a comprehensive plan?” asked Pitkin, to the applause of the audience.
The fractious tenor of the meeting marked the first real Cambridge controversy for Harvard’s new Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone.
Stone sat quietly at the front of the room throughout Spiegelman’s presentation, making just one remark at the beginning of the meeting.
“I’m glad to be here, I’m brand-new, just here to listen and learn tonight,” Stone said.
—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at email@example.com.