Zoning Board Approves Revised Smith Center Plans

Harvard may now move ahead with the construction project

The Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal approved revised plans for Harvard to renovate its Smith Campus Center on Thursday, giving the University permission from the city to move ahead with the construction project.

Smith Campus Center Front
A preliminary rendering of the renovated Smith Campus Center shows a remodeled front facade, where restaurant Au Bon Pain is currently located.

The board’s four-to-one vote comes after Harvard planners and architects met with the zoning board twice this summer in attempts to receive its approval, but a vote was delayed both times after pushback from local residents. Both the Cambridge Historical Commission and the Cambridge Planning Board have already backed Harvard’s plans to renovate the first, second, and 10th floors of the building, which is located at 1350 Massachusetts Ave. and formerly known as the Holyoke Center.

At previous hearings, Cambridge residents and other critics of Harvard’s design argued that the building was an encroachment on the historic Forbes Plaza and Harvard Square’s much-needed open spaces. Originally, plans stipulated that the campus center would include a “welcome plaza” with a two-story front facade, and critics described it as too grandiose.

On Thursday, Harvard-affiliated architects presented a revised version of its plan for the building, developed after officials sought input from several Cambridge residents who raised concerns about it this summer.

The approved plans feature a redesign of the front facade, with seven more feet of open outdoor space in Forbes Plaza. In addition, Harvard scrapped its initial proposal to add height to the building’s 10th floor, dodging a large zoning issue presented at earlier meetings.

The revised plans also allocate more space for chess tables, which will now stand at the center of the outdoor plaza. Chess players frequent the plaza today, and regulars showed up at the hearings this summer to criticize earlier drafts of the plans for neglecting the chess tables, which, according to one player, are world-renowned.

Landscaping also played a large part in the plans Harvard presented Thursday. The approved design includes five trees dividing the seating area adjacent to the building and the sidewalk on Mass. Ave.

Cambridge residents struck a starkly different tone in their reactions to the plans at the meeting Thursday. While at past hearings many were critical, during Thursday’s public comment period, local reactions to the updated plans were overwhelmingly positive.

“This is fantastic,” longtime resident James Williamson said. “I love it.”

Williamson had called the Smith Center a “Taj Mahal-like structure” at a hearing in late July and was part of a task force charged with working with Harvard architects to alter the designs to the public’s liking.

On Thursday, however, he was more optimistic. “It will not be detrimental to the public,” Williamson said.

Cambridge City Councillor Nadeem Mazen, who had criticized Harvard’s representatives for failing to incorporate public concerns in the previous plans, called Thursday’s hearing “city planning at its best.”

“It’s a fine day in Cambridge,” said Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

After the board approved the plans, Williamson shared celebratory drinks with attendees from Harvard and other members of the public.

Construction on the building is expected to last until 2018.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.