Last week, Harvard finally reached a deal with neighboring Watertown that will give millions of dollars to the city over the coming years as compensation for the University’s purchase of the Arsenal office complex. The neighborhood’s almost unanimously favorable reaction gives us hope that Harvard may be turning a corner in its heretofore clumsy community relations.
When the University purchased the 30-acre Arsenal plot a year and a half ago, the community’s outcry was harsh—but its alarm was justified. Because Harvard is a tax-exempt institution, Watertown would have lost millions of dollars in revenue when the Arsenal site was removed from the city’s tax rolls. That revenue accounted for almost 5 percent of Watertown’s entire budget, money Watertown had been counting on for library and school renovations among other projects.
In that light, this deal—in which Harvard will pay Watertown $3.8 million this year, increasing 3 percent each year until 2054—is a heartening signal that the University recognizes its obligation to invest in surrounding communities. The $3.8 million figure is the Arsenal’s estimated tax value this year, ensuring that Watertown will not lose any revenue at all in the short term. And though the agreement ends 52 years from now, Harvard has extended other payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements after they have expired in Cambridge and Boston.
The deal benefits the University as well as Watertown; the Arsenal plot provides Harvard with much-needed space. It can relocate nonessential operations to Watertown, freeing up prime real estate close to the heart of campus for the College and student groups.
Shortly after Harvard bought the Arsenal, Watertown children and their parents were protesting Harvard’s heartless action. Now those parents are applauding the University’s presence. If Harvard hopes to capitalize on its newfound goodwill, however, it cannot stop in Watertown. It must expand its PILOT program in Cambridge and Allston as well. Cambridge currently receives only $1.6 million in PILOT payments, less than half of Watertown’s total—but Harvard occupies more than seven times as much space in Cambridge as in Watertown. This clear inequity is guaranteed to anger Cambridge residents, and with good reason—they have had to endure Harvard’s architectural mistakes for decades, whereas Watertown is only now beginning its relationship with the University.
This is the University’s chance to make a dramatic effort to improve its relations with all its neighbors. If it misses this opportunity, relations with Cambridge will only worsen, leaving Harvard in more of an untenable position with its closest neighbor than ever before.