Tunnel Quietly Remains on Back Burner
In fact, these days, Joan Pickett is surprised that anyone’s even asking about the tunnel that Harvard wants to dig under busy Cambridge Street.
Pickett is president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association (MCNA), which for years led a campaign against the government center Harvard is building on the northeast fringe of campus.
The new center is going ahead—the wrecking balls moved in last week to clear away the lots where its two main buildings will go. The tunnel that is supposed to connect the buildings once preoccupied community members, but now it’s not even an issue for Pickett and her fellow neighborhood activists.
“We think it’s dead,” she says.
Yet Pickett is quick to add that she and the neighborhood association are keeping a watchful eye on Harvard and its new center.
“I think that we remain concerned about whether the tunnel is truly dead or not,” she says.
Theoretically, the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) might still get its tunnel.
Ever since the Cambridge City Council first talked about the tunnel last December, councillors have opposed the plan. Still, they have yet to formally vote it down.
Week after week, the tunnel simply sits on the council’s list of unfinished business.
And as far as Pickett and other neighborhood activists are concerned, it will remain unfinished.
“We do not anticipate that it will be brought up for a vote with the city council,” she says. “It’s our understanding that it’s unlikely to be brought up for a vote at all.”
So the MCNA has moved on, now focusing its efforts on new projects, including a city library planned for another part of the neighborhood.
For nine months, the tunnel was the project’s Achilles’ heel—literally the only piece of CGIS awaiting permission after last December.
Late this summer, Harvard at last received all the permissions required to build a tunnel-free CGIS. But University officials still insist that the tunnel is still crucial and they haven’t given up.
In the battle over the tunnel, Harvard followed its old community relations strategy, confronting the neighborhood with a finished proposal—a package deal—then wrangling over it for months.
Now, even as they lobby city officials in a final push for the tunnel, University officals say they need a new game plan for community relations.
This July, negotiations between Harvard and Mid-Cambridge broke down.
After about a dozen meetings, the University and neighborhood negotiating teams came up with a tentative deal, including millions of dollars worth of concessions from Harvard, such as the donation of a small park to the neighborhood and a moratoria on future building.
But ultimately, three of the four community representatives turned down the package.
Several months later, the two sides have held no further discussions about a tunnel package.
Pickett does not rule out the possibility of negotiating a tunnel package with Harvard—but only if the University agrees to put modifications to one of the two main CGIS buildings on the table.
Even John Pitkin, the former MCNA president who led the charge against the tunnel, says he has eased up on tunnel work and has not been in touch with the city council for a couple of weeks.
“We’re in touch with them but not actively lobbying,” Pitkin says. “Not to say that we won’t but we’ve got other things on our plate.”
When the city council discussed the tunnel in early October, several councillors made it clear that their positions had not changed since last December. And Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan says he doesn’t know when or if the city council will finally bring the tunnel to a vote.
At a recent meeting of the Cambridge Club, a local membership group, University President Lawrence H. Summers told a crowd of neighbors gathered at the Faculty Club that he was frustrated with the outcome of the tunnel negotiations.
“That was an example of something where we had worked very hard to accomodate [the neighbors],” Summers said in a Crimson interview, reiterating his remarks. “We felt it was a test of the desire to cooperate with Harvard. Harvard had done things it really hadn’t done in the past.”
University officials concede that, at this point, winning permission for the tunnel is unlikely. But so far Harvard has refused to give up.
Even now, Alan J. Stone, Harvard’s vice president for government, community and public affairs, estimates that he spends 20 to 30 percent of his time working with city officials on the tunnel, although he declines to detail exactly what he’s doing.
Meanwhile, work on CGIS moves forward. Last week wrecking crews began tearing down two old University buildings, which will be replaced by the new CGIS structures.
In order to keep construction on schedule, Associate Dean for Physical Planning David A. Zewinski ’76 says Harvard officials need to know whether or not there would be a tunnel by the end of the year.
But at this point, Stone says he does not know if any councillors’ minds have changed about the tunnel, and he says he’s reluctant to force the issue too soon.
“We don’t want to ask until we know what the final terms of the conversation might lead to,” he says. “We don’t want a ‘no’ when there’s a chance for a ‘yes.’”
The tunnel battle has proved a schooling ground in Harvard’s Cambridge politics for Stone, who came to his post one year ago this month.
But even as he’s still putting in time pulling for a tunnel, Stone says the University is rethinking the way it conducts community relations in construction projects.
“Almost everyone would be served by a faster process and a process with more certitude earlier,” Stone says. “No one’s served by a process that takes six to seven years.”
In particular, as Harvard looks to build large-scale science facilities in the North Yard, Stone says the University is trying to get commmunity feedback early in the game. He is sending community relations officials to talk with neighborhood groups about the University’s plans even before architects are hired.
“We’re trying to communicate very early in the process,” Stone says.
As for Mid-Cambridge, Stone, who came to Harvard only years after negotiations had started, calls the current era of community relations a time of “rebuilding.”
Government department chair Roderick MacFarquhar, who last spring worked on a faculty petition supporting the tunnel, said that he still hopes permission will come through—although he says he has backed off from lobbying for the tunnel.
“Alan Stone is extremely competent and if he can’t persuade people, I don’t think I can do any better,” MacFarquhar says. “I’m sure he’s doing everything that’s possible and it may be it’s a losing battle.”
—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org