Harvard Tunnel Proposal Faces Its Final Hurdle

Neighbors voice opposition to

The fight over Harvard’s planned government center has moved underground.

For years, Harvard and Cambridge residents have struggled over an elaborate and expensive new facility that would consolidate the Department of Government and a dozen related academic centers.

The battle has centered around the size and shape of two new office and classroom buildings that Harvard hopes will one day comprise the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), planned to sit on the northeastern section of campus.

The center gradually seemed to be nearing reality over the past four years as municipal authorities discussed, tweaked and eventually approved nearly every component of CGIS. As late as this winter, the University still had plans to break ground on the center next month.

But over the past several weeks, the battleground has shifted and the struggle intensified. Now, attention is focused below ground on a tunnel that would connect the center’s two main buildings on either side of the busy Cambridge Street.

Gaining permission to dig the tunnel represents the final barrier to completion of the government center. And Harvard officials insist the tunnel is crucial to the project’s going forward.

But Harvard faces intense opposition from neighborhood residents who call the tunnel intrusive. They say that digging the underground passageway—which would take two years to complete—would be a long and noisy ordeal.

Tonight, for the first time, the Cambridge Planning Board will debate the merits of the tunnel. They will eventually recommend to the City Council whether or not Cambridge should grant Harvard permission to dig under a city street. Even if the board recommends granting such permission, Harvard’s tunnel plan will have to overcome the stiff opposition of city councillors, who have final say on the matter.

For Harvard, the tunnel has become the project’s Achilles heel. For city residents, it represents their last stand against CGIS.

Politics and Planning

The plan itself is straightforward enough. To build CGIS according to current plans, the University would demolish two existing Harvard buildings and erect new terra cotta and glass structures in their places. A tunnel would cut across Cambridge St. to connect the buildings’ basements.

But as the tunnel issue has become bogged down in lengthy and repeated hearings, the debate has centered as much on city politics as on city planning.

For their part, Harvard officials contend that the tunnel holds benefits not only for the Faculty and students, who will be able to move between the buildings without ever stepping outside, but also for those who live nearby. Traffic will flow more freely without students and Faculty trekking across the street, they argue.

In addition, they argue that the tunnel means only one building has to have a loading dock, which frees up green space around the other cuilding.

“I’m at a loss to understand the objections,” wrote Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles in an e-mail. “If I were a neighbor, I’d be petitioning Harvard please to build a tunnel and thus improve my neighborhood.”

But at hearing after hearing over the past two months, Cambridge residents have made it abundantly clear that they disagree. And rather than restrict their objections to the tunnel alone, residents have attacked the project as a whole and Harvard expansion in general.

“I see no public benefit in this [project],” said Cambridge Street resident Betty Collins at a hearing early last month. “We see it as increasing truck traffic and noise.”

Residents in the Mid-Cambridge neighborhood put the tunnel question to a vote when they met in late January. The results were no different from the long opposition to the planned center by Members of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association (MCNA)—all but two opposed the tunnel.

The results were similar when they took an impromptu vote on the center as a whole—the 40 residents in attendance were unanimously opposed to CGIS.

While the neighborhood group has no official authority, it has the ear of the city officials who stand between Harvard and its tunnel. Three city councillors came to watch the January proceedings, which MCNA widely avertised as one that would deliver a verdict on the tunnel.

The neighborhood group will continue to oppose the tunnel by sending letters to members of the city planning board and city councillors, says MCNA President John Pitkin, who has long led opposition to Harvard’s government center.

“I certainly expect it to have an impact on the city council,” Pitkin says.

To pass the city council, six of the nine councillors must vote in favor of the plan. But a majority of the councillors, including Mayor Michael A. Sullivan, have already said they intend to vote against it.

Although councillors say that the planning board’s recommendation will weigh in their decision, many say that neighborhood opposition will influence their votes at least as heavily.

“My fundamental concern is that the MCNA is so opposed to the project altogether, and particularly the tunnel,” said Councillor Henrietta Davis. “I won’t ignore what [the planning board members] have to say, but at this time it seems like the neighborhood’s objections weigh more heavily for me.”

Plan B?

Given the city council opposition, the outcome on the tunnel question remains far from certain. But Harvard officials say they have no back-up plan in case the tunnel is voted down.

“There are no hidden alternatives,” Knowles said.

Harvard officials maintain the project will go forward with or without a tunnel. But at a minimum, the University would have to “reconsider” its plans for CGIS if the tunnel were rejected, said Mary H. Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations.

Without knowing what Harvard would build without an underground passageway, city residents—and even city councillors—have had to resort to speculation. Perhaps the University would redesign the buildings and make them taller to compensate for having less space underground, some speculate. Others say they still hope Harvard will abandon the project altogether.

If the University laid out its options, Pitkin said, the neighborhood group could make a more informed decision.

“Then people could say, ‘We have plan A that has a tunnel and plan B with taller buildings,’” he said. “It’s not clear what the alternative is. It’s just not clear.”

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