While contention and hostility have long characterized the interactions between Cambridge residents and Harvard, over the past year there have been indications that the two sides are fashioning a more positive working relationship.
In January, Harvard reached a long-term deal with the city that will substantially increase the University’s annual voluntary payments, an agreement that was years in the making.
The University also got the green light to begin construction in two Cambridge neighborhoods with decades-long histories of resistance to University encroachment—the Riverside neighborhood along the Charles, and the Agassiz neighborhood north of Harvard Yard.
Even with the recent successes, the image of Harvard as an aggressive developer has not disappeared, and in Riverside one resident filed a lawsuit to attempt to block the University’s plans.
But Mary H. Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations, says the progress on the construction in both neighborhoods is a positive sign.
“As we look back on this year, we see tremendous successes in University-community relations,” Power says. “I don’t think there has ever been so much development underway at one time.”
In both Agassiz and Riverside, the expansion comes as a result of long-term agreements reached in 2003 which are now coming to fruition.
“It was a hard-fought negotiation and both sides won some pieces and both sides lost some pieces,” says Alan Joslin, who serves on a committee to oversee the implementation of Harvard’s agreement in Riverside. “That’s what really marks a successful negotiation, when no one is totally happy.”
PILOT TAKES OFF
Harvard’s wealth and sizable endowment have often generated considerable resentment among city residents and politicians, who say that since Harvard’s property is largely tax-exempt, the University benefits from Cambridge’s public services without giving adequately in return.
Last year Harvard paid the city $4.5 million for its taxable properties as well as a voluntary $1.7 million payment in lieu of taxes—(PILOT)—to compensate for its tax-exempt property.
After the PILOT agreement re-opened for negotiation in 2000, Harvard officials met with City Manager Robert W. Healy to discuss upping Harvard’s contributions.
The new agreement, signed in January, commits Harvard to contributing $2.4 million to the city’s 2006 budget. The base payment will increase by about 3 percent each year and $100,000 each decade.
According to current estimates, when the agreement terminates in 50 years, Harvard’s annual payment could amount to nearly $10 million.
When the new deal was announced to the City Council, some members argued that Harvard—the city’s largest landowner—should contribute more.
“This is not a gift,” Vice Mayor Marjorie C. Decker said at the time. She contended that the University would owe $33.3 million annually if its property were fully taxed.
But Mayor Michael A. Sullivan said at the meeting, “We can all say it could be better, but this is what we got.”
The agreement with Harvard came a month after the city reached its first formal PILOT agreement with MIT. MIT increased its voluntary payment to $1.5 million with a 2.5 percent annual increase for the next 40 years. MIT also agreed to restrict the amount of its commercial property that can be converted to tax-exempt use.
The PILOT agreement with Harvard also specifies that if the University converts currently taxable property to educational purposes, it will continue to pay the city as much as it would have paid in taxes, with a 3 percent annual increase.
City Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, who co-chairs the council’s University Relations Committee with Decker, says he wishes the often-contentious discussions of PILOT agreements could focus on the city services provided to the University rather than on dollar figures.
“Money should not be the issue. We provide all kinds of services to Harvard’s tax-exempt property and there’s a cost,” Galluccio says. “If we could have an intelligent conversation with folks about the subject, there would not be an ongoing debate.”
BY THE CHARLES
This summer will witness the beginning of construction of the University’s properties in Riverside, a neighborhood historically fraught with tension.
At Harvard’s Commencement in 1970, protesters mounted the stage to publicly oppose the construction of Mather House and Peabody Terrace. In 2002, Harvard’s plans to build a museum on Memorial Drive were scuttled amidst neighborhood concerns about parking and noise.
Finally in October 2003, Harvard planners and city representatives came to a compromise, enabling the University to construct a six-story graduate student housing complex between Leverett and Mather Houses, another large complex at the corner of Memorial Drive and Western Avenue, and smaller houses throughout the neighborhood. In exchange, the University will provide 36 units of affordable housing and a public park for city residents.
This past December, the Planning Board unanimously approved Harvard’s designs for the buildings, and preliminary construction is already underway on one of the sites.
“We’re really proud of this agreement,” Power says. “It’s an important one for Harvard, it’s an important one for the city.”
But though some residents say they are resigned to the development, they are still suspicious of the University’s intentions in the neighborhood.
“I think that Harvard has used every opportunity to interpret the agreement to its benefit,” says Carol Bankerd, referring to the University’s plan to extend an underground parking garage beyond the blueprint of its building near Mather, which will result in the removal of a number of trees.
Harvard’s plans for its Memorial Drive site also recently came under attack in a suit filed by Kevin Hill, whose mother’s home abuts the property. On May 26, a Middlesex Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, saying that Hill—neither an attorney nor a trustee of the land—had no legal standing to protest.
Hill says he will continue to challenge the construction, arguing that the new buildings will block his mother’s view of the Charles River.
“The expansion of the neighborhood is going unchecked and really displacing minority and low income people, and at this point in time the city of Cambridge is not doing anything to stop it,” Hill says. “They have the power to do so and they’re not using it for the people who are most vulnerable.”
Power says construction on the Memorial Drive site is expected to begin this summer.
“Completing graduate housing has been a priority for the University, so the motivation has been to proceed with building as quickly as possible,” she says.
NORTH OF THE YARD
Residents in the Agassiz neighborhood say Harvard has stuck by the agreement reached in December 2003, permitting the University to carry out 1.6 million square feet of construction over the next 25 years, in return for providing millions of dollars’ worth of benefits to the community.
Residents have praised Harvard’s construction mitigation team, which responds to neighborhood complaints about construction-related problems like truck traffic, noise, and dust.
“The Harvard construction mitigation team has been terrific,” Carol Weinhaus, who lives next door to current construction, told University representatives at a neighborhood meeting in May.
According to the deal’s stipulations, Harvard made its first payment in March of $250,000 into a newly-created neighborhood fund that will go toward community programs. By the end of the summer, interim traffic calming devices will be installed in the area, says Thomas J. Lucey, Harvard’s director of community relations for Cambridge.
“I have to say that I was not optimistic about being able to work with [Harvard] when we started, but things have been very good,” says Agassiz resident Ellen Friedman, who helped negotiate the agreement.
In the first stage of construction in Agassiz, Harvard will build three new science facilities, housing laboratories and offices from multiple departments, which University planners say epitomizes the interdisciplinary nature of science in the future.
The Biological Research Infrastructure (BRI), the first building, experienced a fire in February that inflicted millions of dollars of damage and has caused a delay in construction, the length of which is not yet known, Power says.
According to Lucey, the University expects to complete construction of the second building, the Laboratory for Interface Science and Engineering, in the next two and a half years.
Plans for the Northwest science building on Oxford Street were approved by the Planning Board in mid-February, and construction is set to commence this summer.
The second phase of development in Agassiz includes the expansion of Harvard Law School, which recently completed a “fairly fine-grained” study of its needs, and now is looking at ways to utilize space to meet them, Power says.
Harvard’s actions in Cambridge are being watched closely on both sides of the river, as plans for Allston move ahead.
“I think things will continue to be very positive as we develop stronger relations in both cities and find ways to partner around shared interests,” Power says.
But some residents caution that the process is still marred by miscommunication.
Lawrence Adkins, the president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, says he wishes the University would be more open with the community about its plans.
“That’s why we’re still yelling for change,” Adkins says.
—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.