Proposed Tunnel Clears Planning Board Review

The Cambridge Planning Board recommended last night that the city approve Harvard’s petition to cut a tunnel under Cambridge St. But the tunnel still has to overcome staunch opposition from the City Council before digging can begin.

Debate has raged recently over the tunnel, which would connect the two buildings of Harvard’s planned Center for Government and International Relations (CGIS).

Though University officials insist having a tunnel is crucial to the CGIS project, the Harvard administrator who oversees CGIS planning conceded that, even with last night’s vote, the toughest fight lies ahead.

“This was good, but we still have a long way to go,” said David A. Zewinski ’76, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for physical resources and planning.

For their part, neighborhood activists said they did not consider the planning board’s vote a significant setback.

“This was pretty much what I expected,” said John Pitkin, president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, whose members recently met and declared almost unanimous opposition to the tunnel. “I certainly don’t think [the Planning Board’s recommendation] helps but I think that the city council is still going to listen to the neighbors.”

While councillors have said they will consider the planning board’s opinion, they have said neighborhood opposition could outweigh the planners’ recommendation. In fact, a majority of councillors have said they intend to vote the tunnel down.

In a past vote, the planning board already approved the CGIS project as a whole.

But since digging an underground passageway means Harvard will be cutting through city property, the tunnel requires an extra approval.

Planning board chair Larissa Brown argued that the tunnel improves the project, enabling only one of the buildings to have a loading dock, meaning decreased truck traffic in the neighborhood and fewer “permanent annoyances.”

And board member Florrie Darwin argued that the tunnel allows more of the structures’ space to be below ground, so neighbors can look at shorter buildings.

But the planning board’s lone dissenter, Kevin Benjamin, disagreed. Harvard does not need a tunnel in order to use basement space in its buildings, he said.

Pitkin, one of the neighborhood’s few representatives at last night’s meeting, said that the planning board didn’t consider the impact of tunnel construction on the neighborhood—but he said he believes the city council will.

“We’re going to turn out at the [city council] hearing and let them know how we feel,” Pitkin said.

—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at