All Quiet on the Cambridge Front

A new approach to dealing with neighbors may signal a thaw in town-gown relations

Jessica E. Schumer

Last November, activists from five Cambridge neighborhoods came together to air their gripes about the world-famous institution in their midst—an institution many at the meeting described as a land-hungry behemoth pursuing excessive building projects in each of the neighborhoods.

“If we let the next dozen projects follow in these projects’ footsteps, Harvard will indeed remain a great University, but the city [will be] without a soul,” meeting organizer John Pitkin, a Mid-Cambridge resident, told the assembly.

The meeting underscored the long-standing tensions between Harvard and its neighbors, who have clashed over the years as the University’s need to develop has conflicted with local residents’ desires to protect their already-cramped space.

Cambridge activists know how to work the city’s political system—including a Cambridge City Council that’s had historically antagonistic relations with the University—and they have not been shy about expressing their resentment of Harvard’s growth.

Within the last year, Harvard gave up on two controversial projects after facing uphill battles against local residents who were backed by city politicians. Over the summer Harvard scrapped plans for an art museum overlooking the river, and last winter the University gave up a year-long battle for a tunnel underneath a busy city street that would have connected the two parts of the government department’s future home.

But now, at least in one neighborhood, a new way of doing business seems to be emerging—a fact which city leaders, neighbors and Harvard officials point to as a sign that town-gown relations may be on an upswing.


The Impossible Dream

Residents of the Agassiz area, just north of the Yard, are facing development from all sides. Harvard Law School (HLS) and the science facilities of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—both natives of the neighborhood—are each planning major new buildings to solve pressing short-term space crunches.

As University officials plan to build a new Harvard campus across the river in Allston, both HLS and FAS sciences are considered the top candidates for a move—and both are striving to dig in their heels in Cambridge.

But rather than fighting the expansion, the Agassiz residents chose to negotiate, saying they know they can get some benefits from Harvard in return for their cooperation.

Now, Agassiz representatives are engaged in regular discussions with several Harvard officials, including Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone, who pledged upon his arrival about a year and a half ago to establish more open communication with residents.

Both sides say the process has been positive, and they are optimistic about reaching an agreement, possibly in the next several months.

And city politicians praise the efforts of the University—which in the past was often criticized as haughty and aloof—to create goodwill in the Agassiz neighborhood.

“They’ve had an ongoing dialogue that they may not have had with other neighborhoods,” says Mayor Michael A. Sullivan. “The University has been much better, in my perspective, at coming to the table and being part of the community.”

Choosing to Talk

At a December meeting of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council (ANC), activist William Bloomstein acknowledged that the neighborhood was in a historic position.