Riverside Museum Proposal Ditched

After a three-year battle with the community over the University’s proposal to build a modern art museum on the Charles River, Harvard has finally given up the fight.

University officials announced at a July 2 meeting of the Cambridge Planning Board that they are shelving the plan and “shifting focus.”

Harvard officials say they instead hope to use the site, which is currently home to Mahoney’s Garden Center, for graduate student housing—an option which the University introduced, but strongly downplayed, at a meeting with the community last December.

Boston Globe art critic Christine Temin suggested in a column this week that the abandonment of the plan, combined with the recently announced departure of University Art Museums Director James Cuno, might indicate that University President Lawrence H. Summers is not as willing as his predecessor to go to the plate for art at Harvard.

“The position of the arts within the university seems particularly precarious,” Temin wrote.

Former University president Neil L. Rudenstine was well known for supporting the arts and particularly for helping the University art museums make a strong claim to the Mahoney’s plot—a much sought-after piece of land due to its proximity to Harvard undergraduates.

“He was very supportive, very encouraging of [the museum’s architect] Renzo Piano and the ambitions of the art museums, and always recognized that it would not be easy,” Cuno said in an interview yesterday. “It’s not easy to get a building project approved within the University, let alone within the city.”

Summers has put developing Harvard’s 100 acres of currently industrial acreage across the river in Allston onto the front-burner—and that has significantly changed the planning process for Harvard’s museums, according to Cuno.

Cuno said he had concerns about moving museums to Allston.

“This is not moving a program to Allston, it is dividing the institution into two,” Cuno said. “It is crucial to our teaching that we remain in the Yard.”

While Cuno added that eventually Harvard will be one “big university” on both sides of the river, his concerns echo those expressed in other parts of Harvard that are candidates for a cross-river move—such as the law school and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences science departments.

The art museum faced stark neighborhood opposition from the get-go—at one early meeting, a neighbor stood up and told the University, “If you build it, we’re going to bomb it,” according to Riverside activist Cob Carlson.

The Riverside neighborhood—home of Harvard’s most hated buildings, Peabody Terrace and Mather Towers—has had a long and uneasy history dealing with Harvard development.

Neighborhood opponents of the project convinced the Cambridge City Council to place a moratorium on development in Riverside more than a year ago.

The council also created a study committee to come up with new zoning for the entire neighborhood—with a strong focus on the Mahoney’s site.

This spring, the committee created zoning for the site that significantly pared down the permissible scale of buildings on the site to a maximum height of 24 feet.

While Harvard’s Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone said that officials hoped housing would be a less controversial option than the museum has been, the housing plan will likely face strong neighborhood opposition as well.

Carlson noted this spring that the notion of building housing in Riverside brings back memories of Harvard putting up Mather and Peabody Terrace.

Despite the downzoning to the site, neighbors say even 24-foot Harvard buildings are too much for the area. This spring many members of the study committee, saying they wanted the site to be a public park, urged their neighbors to lobby Cambridge to take the site by “eminent domain.”

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