Neighborhood Vows Flexibility

Saying they want to reach a compromise with Harvard, residents of the Agassiz neighborhood—the University’s last major frontier for building in Cambridge—have dropped two major sticking points from their “wish list” of prerequisites that must be fulfilled before they’ll approve Harvard development.

Approximately 20 members of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council (ANC) voted unanimously last night to give the University latitude on the size and density of building projects in the North Yard and to allow Harvard the flexibility to move several popular museums out of neighborhood, including the Peabody Museum.

In return, neighbors said, they will press Harvard for a list of other concessions, ranging from traffic rerouting and a limit on building heights to more than a million dollars for a neighborhood endowment and a trust for open space.

William Bloomstein of the neighborhood activist group ACID—the Agassiz Committee on the Impacts of Development—told members that, by avoiding the “adversarial” approach other groups have taken in response to Harvard development, Agassiz residents stand to benefit from the negotiations.

“We have the opportunity to get something no community’s ever gotten from Harvard,” Bloomstein said.

But University officials said last night that, while they looked on the neighborhood’s vote as a positive step in negotiations, they were not ready to accept all of ACID’s demands about the expansion of Harvard Law School (HLS) and the science facilities at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

“The items that are remaining on the list are quite significant as well,” said Mary H. Power, senior director of community relations. “They’re looking for very significant mitigation and community benefits of an unprecedented scale.”

At the meeting, Bloomstein presented the results of a survey conducted by ACID, in which 83 community members ranked items on the wish list based on priority.

Topping the list was the addition of a second entrance to Harvard’s underground garage—which is currently under construction—to help reduce traffic jams. Bloomstein said that the idea of a second entrance is already under discussion by Harvard officials, city officials, and ANC members, who are conducting a formal traffic and parking study in the neighborhood.

Other items still on the list—including a ban on construction north of Wendell Street and a limit on additional parking spaces—would be tougher to win from the University, according to Bloomstein.

But he said that talks with Harvard so far represent a welcome change from previous development negotiations— he said that residents were being up-front about their demands and the University had shown a willingness to work with them.

The two concessions the residents voted to drop were not included on the survey because they were viewed as the most difficult to obtain.

Bloomstein said Harvard officials had been unwilling to discuss the size of the University’s planned development in the neighborhood, currently estimated at 1.1 million square feet of new buildings and an additional 500,000 square feet of rebuilding.

Harvard officials have contended that this square footage represents half of what the University could build under current zoning regulations.

And Bloomstein said he had been told that while Harvard has no concrete plans to relocate the museums, University officials are considering moving them across the river to Allston and would not commit to keeping them in Cambridge.

While ANC members said they do not want to lose the museums—which many say are important cultural additions to the neighborhood—they said they would drop these two items from the list in an attempt to compromise.

Power said Harvard has also shown signs of cooperation, including their willingness to participate in the traffic study.

“The key thing is that the neighborhood is focused on mutual benefits and Harvard is focused on mutual benefits, and as long as we can keep that shared goal as the target I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to ultimately reach a positive agreement with the neighborhood,” Power said.

Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone said that he would not comment on the specifics of the wish list until he had spoken to residents, but that the University would continue to engage in conversations with neighborhood activists.

“We look forward to continuing to work with them and I know that things are evolving,” Stone said.

But while Bloomstein told residents he hopes for “demonstrable progress” in negotiations by this June, Power said that timetable would be difficult, since HLS and Harvard Divinity School are still at early stages of physical planning.

“We may be able to construct some sort of agreement regarding the projects that are further along in planning in that short time between now and June,” Power said.

The Law School will present its feasibility study to the neighborhood at a meeting next Tuesday, and Power said she will also meet with Bloomstein and other ACID representatives next week.

Bloomstein said at the ANC meeting that he hopes to send Harvard a clear message: residents want to work with the University on development issues, but they will expect benefits in return.

“I want Harvard to think that for every square foot they build, there’s a dollar amount associated with that,” he said.

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