Neighbors Tired of Living in Harvard’s Shadow

Historic tensions could lead Cambridge City Council to pass stringent restrictions

The sign in front of Riverside resident Cob Carlson’s house says it all: “No Harvard buildings here. Save our neighborhood.”Carlson’s home is located next to Mahoney’s Garden Center on Memorial Drive, a site that has been at the epicenter of one of Harvard’s biggest fights with the city of Cambridge.

Carlson’s name has become a synonym for the activist-endorsed development plan for the neighborhood—a plan that aims to strictly regulate the height and density of future Harvard buildings and make the statements emblazoned on Carlson’s sign a reality.

The Cambridge City Council has only two opportunities—tonight and next Monday—to vote on the so-called Carlson petition and the more moderate zoning plan submitted by the planning board or to cobble together a compromise.

With all of the city councillors up for re-election on Nov. 4, residents of the traditionally working class neighborhood along the Charles River are demanding that the council protect their interests and limit Harvard’s growth.

“I think the way the councillors handle this issue will either draw the community to support their re-election or cause them to work hard to dethrone those who have not been sensitive to the community,” says Alan Joslin, a member of the Kerry Corner Improvement Association, a group representing the city blocks nearest Mather House.

Council members and Harvard officials have been meeting behind closed doors to try to hammer out a last-minute compromise—although no one is sure when that last minute will be.

Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87, who has been at the forefront of compromise efforts, says the vote will probably happen next Monday. But resident Carol Bankerd says several city council members have told her they expect the rezoning to be on tonight’s agenda.

Although local activists say they hope a compromise between Harvard and the neighborhood can be reached, several say they think the Carlson petition will have enough votes on the council to pass if the negotiations fall through.

“I think that all parties involved believe that a negotiated deal will be in everyone’s best interest, and so I sincerely hope that will happen rather than having to pass the Carlson petition,” says Alec Wysoker ’84. “But if the negotiated solution doesn’t happen, then I think the Carlson petition will be passed.”

Through the more than three years that Harvard and Riverside have been battling over the University’s right to build, the debate has often centered on Harvard’s notorious history of development in Riverside—a history that has included buying out small houses to build large, unpopular buildings like Mather Tower and Peabody Terrace.

“This is obviously one of our more difficult community challenges,” says Harvard’s Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone. “That’s the biggest challenge, overcoming the gravity of negative history.”

After three years of discussion and several months of negotiation, history still hangs in the forefront of many minds—and Harvard’s ability to develop a handful of its remaining Cambridge sites still hangs in the balance.

Crunch Time

The Mahoney’s site on Memorial Drive is a site that has “eluded resolution for three decades,” says Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power.

In 2000—the beginning of the most recent incarnation of the old battle—Harvard proposed a modern art museum for the site. Neighborhood activists, strongly opposed to the proposal, took their case to the city council and fought for and won a moratorium on all building in Riverside.

At the time, the neighborhood had extremely permissive zoning that allowed for buildings of up to 120 feet.

In the meantime, the city manager appointed a group of Riverside residents and one Harvard representative to debate and develop new zoning for the entire neighborhood—with a special eye towards a few Harvard-owned sites.

The plan that ultimately emerged from that process formed the basis for the Carlson petition.

Although at the time the study committee wrapped up its work, many said they regretted that they couldn’t zone the site into a park, the resultant zoning was still very tough: the Carlson petition would cut permitted heights on the Mahoney’s site from 120 feet to 24 feet.

The city’s planning board, which reviewed the Carlson petition and deemed it too punitive, submitted an alternate petition which would allow heights of up to 45 feet, with an option for the University to obtain special permits for even taller buildings.

Harvard officials have submitted formal written opposition to both the Carlson petition and the planning board’s petition, calling both excessively restrictive.

Harvard officials currently say they hope to build graduate student apartments on the Mahoney’s site and housing for faculty and affiliates in Kerry Corner.

As the largest landowner in the affected property, the University’s opposition means that either petition could only pass if seven of the nine councillors vote for it.

With the Oct. 28 deadline for council action fast approaching, Harvard representatives have been engaged in ongoing discussions with Murphy and David P. Maher, the councillors who co-chair the city’s Ordinance Committee.

Maher and Murphy emphasize that their goal is to reach a compromise that will receive the votes it needs to pass.

“I know people are anxious to get this resolved, but I want to make sure we get it done right,” Murphy says.

Residents say they are unclear on the exact details of the agreement being discussed, but add they are hopeful a compromise can be reached that they will support.

Carlson says he considers a “reasonable” height for the Mahoney’s site to be a maximum of 45-55 feet.

Carol Bankerd says a deal currently “on the table” would allow three 36-foot tall buildings—more than the Carlson petition allows—in exchange for the creation of open space on part of the Mahoney’s plot.

Power and Murphy both decline to discuss specific proposals, but they say the discussions center around providing open space on part of the property and including affordable housing units for city residents in the buildings.

In Kerry Corner—where Harvard owns several small properties and has recently floated the idea of building a 65-foot dorm for grad students on Cowperthwaite Street—both Joslin and Bankerd say the residents are concerned about the proposed building’s height.

“I think they’re going to try to push the envelope, try to get a little bit more than the Carlson petition, and we wouldn’t be happy with that,” Joslin says.

He added that the neighborhood had already compromised by allowing dormitories on the site instead of small-scale housing.

“We’re really not in the mood to go any further than what we’ve already done,” he says.

Bankerd and Joslin say discussions about the other Kerry Corner site under consideration, on Grant Street, do not seem to be as contentious. Harvard has agreed to limit heights to 35 feet, which the neighbors support.

“I think everyone, all the stakeholders, are interested in arriving at resolution,” Power says of the entire rezoning process. “It is clearly a very difficult task but I think Harvard has brought to the table a willingness to work with the council and the community to land in the right place.”

Jockeying for Votes

The council’s decision on zoning will come just weeks before Election Day, and residents have made no secret of the fact that they will only support councillors who represent their interests.

“I can’t imagine the councillors putting forth something that the community couldn’t support,” Joslin says. “It would seem like it would be political suicide.”

Several councillors have already expressed support of the Carlson petition—including Marjorie C. Decker, Kenneth E. Reeves ’72, E. Denise Simmons, and Timothy J. Toomey—according to the residents.

Simmons says she would be willing to vote for a compromise, but is still in favor of the Carlson petition if an agreement can’t be reached.

“My inclination would be voting for something that is close to the neighborhood’s desire,” she says. “We’re the ones who are going to have to live with it.”

Carlson says he thinks many of the other councillors are also waiting to see what will happen with the discussions.

“The councillors who haven’t come out in support of the Carlson petition are waiting to see how this negotiation will go, and I think that will be the determining factor,” Carlson says. “I think if they find that Harvard isn’t willing to compromise, then they’ll pass the Carlson petition.”

Some residents have said they are afraid the councillors may be influenced by the possibility that Harvard could sue the city if the zoning requirements are too restrictive under a state law called the Dover Amendment, which forbids city zoning that prevents institutions from fulfilling their missions.

Stone and Power both say that Harvard officials are not discussing a lawsuit.

“Our efforts are focused on resolution, not on planning a lawsuit,” Power says.

Stone says he thinks even the councillors who have already said they support the Carlson petition could be won over by a new compromise.

“Often times elected officials will have a position that is their preferred one, but there might be a solution that is acceptable that is not their preferred one [but] that is still better than the other alternatives, so you have to keep talking to them,” Stone says.

According to Cambridge political pundit Robert Winters, neighborhood zoning petitions typically ask for more extreme provisions than the councillors are inclined to accept.

But he adds that zoning petitions are often timed to come up in election season to increase the political pressure on the councillors—and the Carlson petition is no exception.

“There are several sitting city councillors who would love to be seen as the champion on this issue,” he says.

Winters says the neighborhood activists who are most vocal on the issue do not necessarily represent the views—and the votes—of the entire neighborhood. He says he believes most Riverside residents would accept a compromise.

“As long as nobody has the feeling in the end that an enormous amount was given away in exchange for nothing, I think the neighborhoods tend to be pretty accepting,” he says.

Staging a Protest

If a compromise is reached, it would mark a major step forward for a neighborhood that has long resented the University’s expansion.

According to Saundra Graham, a longtime Riverside resident and former city councillor, the town-gown rift goes as far back as the 1950s, when the University began to look at possibilities for expansion in the area.

This expansion included the construction of Peabody Terrace and Mather Tower in the 1960s—two buildings that are praised by architects but hated by neighbors who say the tall structures cast shadows across their homes and block their views of the river.

Graham says the residents were outraged that the University was evicting local residents and taking up space that could have been devoted to affordable housing.

In the spring of 1970, Graham and other neighborhood activists penned a letter to the Harvard Corporation, requesting a meeting.

But the University’s highest governing board did not respond, and the neighbors decided to take their complaints to the public stage, on a weekend when they knew the board members would be in town.

The night before Commencement, about 350 community members marched to Harvard Yard and spent the night there.

During the ceremony, Graham and about 50 others jumped onto the stage and remained there for 20 minutes. Graham says she took the microphone from University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, and when the sound was cut off, she switched to a bullhorn instead.

Graham says one of the Commencement speakers had been speaking about “the oppressed people of the world.”

As she stepped onto the stage, Graham says she told the audience, “Harvard lives right in the center of the oppressed people of the world, right here in Cambridge.”

She notes that many of the students had helped the community members organize for their cause, and some even got on the stage with them.

“The students were very active in community politics...It was a time of unrest, and the students did their job and they did it well,” Graham says.

The Riverside residents didn’t leave the stage until members of the Corporation agreed to meet with them immediately, and the activists and the Corporation huddled for four hours as Commencement ceremonies continued, she says.

The University agreed to donate a plot of land in Riverside for affordable housing.

But Graham says this did not change the “arrogant” way in which Harvard officials treated the residents of the Riverside area.

“They thumb their nose up at this community and they have been thumbing it for years,” Graham says.

Moving Forward

The old distrust that Riverside residents harbor against Harvard has often surfaced in the recent zoning negotiations.

When councillors and Harvard representatives began to discuss new proposals for the University’s sites, some residents expressed frustration that these ideas hadn’t been presented earlier in the process—such as when a Harvard representative sat on the Riverside Study Committee, the neighborhood group that developed the Carlson petition.

“Harvard basically did not view the study committee as a forum in which to have a discussion,” Wysoker says. “The kinds of negotiation…that I hope are happening between Harvard and councillors now could have gone on during the study committee had Harvard been willing to so.”

Power says the University’s proposal to build graduate student housing was not new, but the initial proposal came before Harvard had hired an architect.

“Through the planning board process and from Riverside Study Committee members and from city councillors we heard very strong concerns that that would not be the most responsive concept or design approach,” Power says. “We have accelerated the process of hiring an architect in order to be able to respond in a more specific way to the concerns that have been raised.”

Simmons says she doesn’t believe the history between Riverside and Harvard should play a major role in the current discussions.

“People clearly have some distrust for Harvard…but to say that’s the long-standing feeling of everybody is hard to say,” she says. “I’m just hoping that we all can come up with a solution that’s going to be one that’s not necessarily against Harvard but good for the community.”

But Carlson says he believes the history of town-gown relations in Riverside is an important issue that should not be overlooked as the two sides attempt to forge a better relationship.

“What has to happen is a more honest, forthcoming and friendly approach by Harvard,” he says, “and a more generous approach, because the institution has so, so much and is so wealthy and rich that it needs to give much more back to its host community.”

Wysoker—a Harvard graduate—says that distrust runs deep.

“I think that there are some residents who hold out hope that Harvard has a conscience,” he says. “My impression is that the Harvard Corporation is an entity that doesn’t have a conscience. It’s merely a giant body that is dedicated to its own perpetuation and growth.”

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at rubinwil@fas.harvard.edu.