Lesley Expands In Agassiz

$13 million project will include two new dorm buildings along Mass. Ave

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Bora Fezga

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In its first ground-up construction project since 1973, Lesley University has one goal: to successfully integrate the new campus extension into Cambridge’s Agassiz neighborhood.

One of many Boston area colleges expanding its campus, Lesley’s experience in Agassiz, an affluent neighborhood just north of Harvard Law School, reinforced the idea that collaboration with the neighbors must be established from the start.

Lesley’s $13 million construction project, which began on Sept. 10, will include two new dormitories along Mass. Ave and Wendell Street that will house nearly 100 students. The university’s final plans arose from extensive negotiations—not just with Cambridge’s political leadership but also with members of the community.

“Together, we drew and redrew, with literally tracing paper on a conference table and sleeves rolled up, for weeks,” said Bill Doncaster, Lesley’s director of public affairs.

Lesley has won over the community by taking to heart the central lessons of Harvard’s recent successes and failures in community relations—notably, that institutions should be willing to revise their plans based on the community’s response, and that the support of neighbors can be a crucial factor in a project’s success.

REDRAWING THE LINES

Over the past few years, Harvard has expanded aggressively into the Agassiz neighborhood, most notably with the construction of the Northwest Science Building and the Law School’s new 250,000-square-foot classroom and student space.

Harvard engaged the community as it planned its expansions—something that neighbors say created a precedent for Lesley’s construction plans.

“When the small group sat down with Lesley,” said Carol Weinhaus, a member of the seven-person Lesley neighborhood working group, “we had already had the positive experience with Harvard.”

Weinhaus, who also worked with the committee that negotiated deals with Harvard, cited an instance when Harvard, at the suggestion of the community, moved two wood-framed houses up Mass. Ave to improve the historic character of the neighborhood.

“The city sort of came out block party style, with their cups of coffee, to watch the magnificent sight of these houses rolling down the street,” said Mary Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations for Cambridge.

Since the preservation of historic buildings is so important to the Agassiz neighborhood, Lesley’s original design for the space—which included one residence hall on Mass. Ave and a parking lot behind it—drew a great deal of criticism from the community.

David Chilinski, who is part of the Lesley working group, cited the absence of space for retail establishments on the ground floor of the Mass Ave building and the large parking lot that would jut into the neighborhood on Wendell Street as issues with the original proposal.

“Lesley came with a plan that was what they would be allowed to do by right,” Chilinski said. “It wasn’t very good.”

With residents expressing opposition to the “ugly, modern” design, Lesley held a number of meetings with residents—including seven in one month—and ultimately asked its architects to redraw the buildings to assuage the community’s concerns.

The result is just what the neighbors wanted: a second residence hall, built in Victorian style, in place of the Wendell Street parking lot, as well as retail space on the ground floor of the Mass Ave building.

NEIGHBORHOOD BUY-IN

When Harvard began laying plans to build graduate student housing in the Riverside community several years ago, it stoked a great deal of hostility in the less-wealthy, historically-black and Irish community.

Among the residents’ principal complaints was the size of the building’s underground parking lot, which would destroy a number of trees, as well as the fact that the buildings would block light and generate noise.

The Riverside residents were not able to the reach an amicable resolution with Harvard, and the case escalated into legal action in 2004 when the neighbors sued to halt the construction.

Though the buildings were ultimately finished, construction did stop for a period. Riverside, a neighborhood just to the south and east of Harvard, has had a long history of tangled relations with Harvard, notably when residents protesting new student housing disrupted the Commencement ceremony in 1970.

By contrast, when Harvard presented its plan for the Northwest Science Building in 2005, the University dealt with resident objections without either side taking it to the courts.

When neighbors objected to the building’s obstruction of green space, Harvard turned the building 90 degrees so that the green space would open onto the street—creating what a local resident affectionately dubbed “the emerald earring.”

Though Harvard officials note say that the context of the Riverside and Agassiz expansions were different, the difference in the relations with the neighborhoods demonstrates the power that residents can have in frustrating University planners. While Riverside suffered delays, the Agassiz plan moved forward more quickly.

In Lesley’s case, intense neighborhood engagement not only eliminated opposition to the project, but allowed the university to actually do more than it had originally thought it could.

Originally, zoning laws did not permit construction of a second dorm on Wendell Street. But because of the support of residents, the city granted Lesley an exception, allowing the university to add a second residence hall to its design for the space.

“I went twice to the zoning meetings,” Weinhaus said. “I think they were stunned, because many times when people [go] to the zoning board, they’re there to contest it. [W]e were there to say, ‘Please give Lesley what they’re asking for.’”

THE WAY FORWARD

The fact that Lesley is a smaller university whose buildings are interspersed throughout the neighborhood makes its plans easier to accept for many residents.

“Lesley’s campus is not Harvard’s gated yard,” said William D. Suter, Lesley’s campus planner. “It’s part of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is part of the educational experience.”

Graduate School of Design professor Alex Krieger noted that Lesley’s construction “is easier to absorb than a giant science building” and would thus make opposition less likely to gel. The neighbors, he said, “are not threatened by Lesley yet.”

But that’s not to say that having students live side-by-side with residents eliminated problems—indeed, it can sometimes exacerbate them.

“The people across the street hate us because we’re loud,” said Caitlyn M. Ewing, a freshman at the Art Institute of Boston, which merged with Lesley a decade ago. “The neighbors are really cranky, they call with complaints every night.”

And given Lesley’s most forward-looking expansion plans, interactions—and potentially tension—between university affiliates and residents might only increase.

Lesley plans to build a new art facility in Porter Square, and also hopes to take over several buildings that currently belong to the Episcopal Divinity School, located just west of Harvard in the Brattle Square neighborhood.

City Councillor Sam Seidel, while applauding Lesley’s growth, said he has some reservations.

“We’ve got to be very careful—we’ve already got two world-famous universities in the city who are major landholders,” said Seidel, who is an urban planner. “A third large educational institution in Cambridge is going to bring benefits but also requires we think carefully about how we develop that relationship.”

—Staff writer Bora Fezga can be reached at bfezga@fas.harvard.edu

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.