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15 Years Later, They're Still Fighting Over What to Build on Shady Hill

By William R. Galeota

Some fifteen years ago, the words "Shady Hill" must have rung as unpleasantly in President Pusey's cars as "On Strike" did last spring.

One of Pusey's first major projects after coming to Harvard in 1953 was planning a Faculty housing project on the Shady Hill site-a six-acre tract of land near the Divinity School. Though Pusey felt the project would be a boon to the University and the community, residents of the upperincome Shady Hill neighborhood-which includes some of the most distinguished Harvard faculty-felt otherwise. Alarmed by what they deemed an undesirable intrusion into the area, they opposed the project and, in a humiliating defeat for Pusey, forced the University to drop its plans.

Now, Harvard has revived plans for housing on Shady Hill (also known as the Sachs Estate or Nortons Woods) and, once again, neighbors of the site are rumbling opposition to the University's plans. This time, however, the debate over Shady Hill has taken on larger overtones, raising questions about what Harvard should do to aid a City now struggling with severe housing shortages, and illustrating some very real difficulties involved in transferring housing plans from paper to bricks and mortar.

To understand the Shady Hill situation, you have to look at the history of the area. And that history goes back a long way. In 1785, John Phillips, Mayor of Boston, claimed possession of a large tract of land, including both the present six-acre Shady Hill site and much of the surrounding neighborhood. Throughout the 19th century, this land passed through a series of distinguished hands-such as those of Henry Ware, Hollis Professor of Divinity of Harvard. In 1823, President Eliot's grandfather bought it.

The area began to take on its present character in the late 1880's when Professor Channing Eliot Norton, then owner of the Shady Hill estate, subdivided much of the land surrounding it into 10,000 acre lots and sold them to Harvard professors, who then settled down and built the stately homes that now line Francis Ave. and other streets near the site. The six acres now known as Shady Hill remained in private hands until 1948, when Harvard purchased them.

Thus, when Pusey came to Harvard in 1953, Harvard owned a large tract of vacant land right on the University's back doorstep, in the middle of a sedate residential neighborhood deemed to be among the finest in Cambridge. Even then, such land was hard to find, and the University began thinking about what to do with the parcel.

At the same time, something was disturbing Harvard's new President: the University no longer seemed to be the tight, cohesive community of scholars he had known as an undergraduate in the 1920's. The members of the University-especially the Faculty-were scattering. Many were moving to the ourlying suburbs-Arlington, Belmont, Newton, etc.-and they came into Cambridge only for lectures and their individual research projects. As Pusey said at the time, "When I first arrived here, I was distressed to find so few Faculty members, especially the young instructors, actually lived in Cambridge. I think we lose a great deal when our Faculty gets spread out over a wide area."

Shady Hill appeared to provide a neat answer: build housing there for the younger Faculty, so that they could have relatively inexpensive homes close to the University. Planning for 120 units of junior Faculty housing at a cost of $1.5 million went ahead. By May 1955, Pusey was ready to unveil the plans to a gathering of the neighbors around Shady Hill.

What happened next is perhaps best described in the words of an observer of the meeting. "It was a disaster. No one had done any advance work in the neighborhood. They did not know how the neighbors felt. The President came in prepared for a tea party but he didn't get it."

Instead, Pusey found himself dodging a barrage of criticism from angry neighbors. The criticism ran along two main lines:

One group, led by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. '38, professor of History, argued that the rents in the project-estimated at about $115 per month for an average apartment-would be too expensive for junior Faculty members.

Other neighbors raised blunter objections: the project would, they said in effect, spoil the neighborhood by bringing in more people, more traffic, and large modern buildings, and perhaps at a later date, even commercial developments.

The opposition forced Pusey to shelve the plans for Shady Hill; during the next ten years the land remained vacant, fenced off, while Cambridge began to experience a steep rise in demand for housing.

By the mid-1960's the Cambridge housing situation was getting to the critical stage. Harvard revived its plans for Shady Hill, both to aid younger Faculty hard-pressed to pay local rents, and as a way to take at least a little demand off the local housing market. The plans were of the same order of magnitude as those of 1955-approximately 150 units of housing.

By this time, the Shady Hill neighborhood appeared to be willing to accept the idea of having this much housing on the site; at any rate, little opposition was voiced when word leaked about Harvard's plans and when, in 1967, the Dunlop Committee on Recruitment and Retention of the Faculty endorsed the idea.

Yet the increasing seriousness of the Cambridge housing shortage now began to put pressure on Harvard from another quarter: low-income residents of Cambridge and Design School students and Faculty sympathetic to their plight began calling upon Harvard to build more than 150 units of housing on Shady Hill.

In the aftermath of the April crisis, the GSD Expansion Committee made a formal proposal to the University: construct 500 units of housing on Shady Hill, open half of them to lowincome community residents, and finance the construction through state programs and loans from Harvard's endowment.

University officials objected to the GSD proposal on several grounds, but their main concern seemed to be neighborhood reaction to the GSD plan.

The situation was a difficult one. On one hand, the housing shortages were getting worse, yet on the other, neighbors would probably fight to the death-in the City Council, and perhaps even in the courts-against a proposal which would bring lowerincome Cambridge residents into the neighborhood around Shady Hill. Caught in the middle, Edward S. Gruson, Pusey's new assistant for Community Affairs, and other Harvard planning officials took the srinplest course: they split the difference between the 150 units Harvard was going to build and the 500 units the GSD asked, and began to develop plans for 300 units of housing for University personnel.

As the plans now stand, Harvard will build two 17-to 20-story towers containing a total of 280 housing units. Another 20 units will be built in lowrise, town house sections. The cost of the entire project is estimated at roughly $8 to $10 million.

Predictably enough, neither the neighbors nor the group of GSD activists regard the Harvard plans as final; both groups are continuing efforts to bring the project closer to their respective ideas for Shady Hill.

In recent months, the neighbors have been the more active of the two groups. Over the summer, they began informal conversations with Gruson and other University officials; two weeks ago, some 50 residents of the area formally organized themselves into the Norton Woods Neighborhood Association for action on the Shady Hill project.

This association's membership is, to say the least, distinguished. Among those present at the organization meeting were critic Howard Mumford Jones, French Chef Julia Child, Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith, Reginald H. Phelps '30, director of University Extension, and Edward T. Wilcox, director of General Education. All of them live within a block or two of the Shady Hill site.

The sentiment of the meeting was clear on two points: most of those present were willing to accept some housing on Shady Hill, but aimost none wanted to see as much as 300 units there. "We should realize that the Sachs Estate has stayed empty for about as long as it's going to in a city like Cambridge which is so short of land," one man said, while another commented, "I think 300 units is out of sight as far as mobs of people are concerned."

Mobs of people, traffic, strain on City services-those were some of the objections the group voiced to the Shady Hill plans. But perhaps the underlying cause of discontent was the feeling that 300 units of housing simply wouldn't fit, that a development of this size would ruin what some called the aesthetic and historical character of the neighborhood. As Jones put it, to visualize the size of the project, "you would have to picture two buildings the size of William James Hall surrounded by smaller buildings."

This picture did not please most of the audience; they promptly named an executive committee, and directed it to develop a counter-proposal for presentation to Harvard. Though no proposal has yet been officially presented, it seems likely that it will ask that no more than 150 units (the number suggested in earlier informal meetings) be built on the lot.

While the Norton Woods Neighborhood Association seems ready to accept some development- -but less than 300 units-on Shady Hill, two other factions are at least potentially ready to form in the area:

A small group of residents, mostly of the portion of Somerville lying adjacent to Shady Hill, would like the entire area preserved as a park. "This is the last chance to get some kind of decency around here. You ought to see the poor parks we have in Somerville," says Mrs. Joan Sullivan, leader of this group.

Some residents of the area may support a denser development than Harvard is planning. Last spring, the GSD activists collected some 50 signatures in the neighborhood on a petition supporting their plan to build 500 units on Shady Hill. Now they are planning surveys in Cambridge and Somerville-and later this year, a studio course at the school-in order to develop a plan for denser development which could get neighborhood backing.

But these two groups are not yet organized, if they ever will be. At least for the moment, the active debate over Shady Hill is mostly between the University and the Norton Woods Association.

University officials say they are hopeful that a plan can be developed which will satisfy most of the neighbors who now say they'll accept 150 units, but no more, on the lot. Harvard is not now planning, however, any compromise on the number of units. "I think the real compromise has already been made-between 500 and 150," Gruson says.

The final decision on Shady Hill, however, rests with the Corporation. If neighbors are adamant in their refusal to accept more than 150 units, it is possible the Corporation might decide to compromise on numbers, rather than face the embarrassing prospect of having to fight against some of Harvard's more distinguished Faculty members when the Univer-

sity's request for a zoning change goes to the City of Cambridge.

There will, however, be plenty of time to try to develop a design for 300 units that is acceptable to the neighborhood, for the Shady Hill plans are facing yet another delay on a different score: that of money.

The plans are facing two types of financial difficulties-rising construction costs and difficulties in the financing plan.

According to various estimates, construction costs in the Greater Boston area are rising by up to 15 per cent a year. The preliminary designs for Shady Hill are now too expensive to construct, so University officials and architects have been reviewing the projects, trying to find ways to save money. L. Gard Wiggins, administrative vice-president of the University, describes the situation like this:

"We've been working with the architect, making all the kinds of cost savings that our people or the architect can come up with. Construction costs are so high today that unless you get some kind of an offset, such as a lower interest rate, you end up with rents that many faculty members will be unwilling to pay, even for the privilege of living in Cambridge."

To date. Wiggins says. the revisions in plans have not been enough to get anticipated rents down to the level Faculty members would like. Harvard is planning for the project to be fully tax-paying and self-supporting so, aside from the construction savings, the only possible savings are in the method of financing. And here Harvard has been disappointed to date.

The University is planning to finance the project under Massachusetts's newly-established Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority. In essence, this authority helps universities, hospitals. etc. to finance construction at the rate of interest for tax-exempt bonds, rather than at the higher market interest rate. The authority issues bonds to finance the construction, owns the project when it is completed, and rents it to the University for a nominal fee. The bonds are then retired out of the revenues of the project-rents in the case of Shady Hill.

The problem is that the authority has just been established, has not financed any projects to date, and when it does, may require higher interest rates than it would have a few years ago. Present high interest levels, a flooding of the tax-exempt bond market by new issues, and investors' uncertainty of what the current tax reform proposals will do for tax-exempt bonds have all contributed to drive up the rate on this kind of bond. "We'd like to talk about five per cent, but we're forced to talk about seven per cent. When you're trying to construct a self-sustaining dormitory at Harvard or anywhere else, over a period of years, that two per cent could make a considerable difference," comments Jack Donaghue, director of the authority.

University officials reject another method of financing-paying for the project out of the University's endowment funds. Though the GSD suggested that Harvard could loan money from its endowment at five per cent interest, Harvard officials point out that endowment funds currently gain about 7 per cent a year and argue that it is vital to keep this return high in an era when all divisions of the University are increasing their demands for funds. "If you take unrestricted money which is now earning interest and use it to meet operating expenses, you just increase the size of the deficit; it's a vicious circle." Wiggins says.

So, for the present, Harvard is concentrating on cutting construction costs, hoping that the state authority will soon be underway and able to finance construction at an interest rate which will permit rents to be set low enough for most junior faculty members.

The question of how high the rents will be is particularly importane, because it will largely determine what kinds of University personnel live in the Shady Hill project. That in turn has major implications for the impact of the project on the neighborhood.

Take the schools for an example. Estimates have been made that anywhere from only a few to over 300 new children will come from the 300 Shady Hill units into the Agassiz School which serves the district and now holds some 240 pupils. Just how many actually come depends on whether older or younger Faculty members live in the project, whether the Agassiz School retains its position as one of the leading grammar schools in the city, and whether, as one Agassiz parent puts it, "the parents don't accept the myths about the Cambridge schools and instead take a look for themselves."

The Agassiz School is old (build in 1915) and is scheduled to be replaced by a new school in 1971. Though some Agassiz parents hope construction of the new school can be coordinated with the development of another Harvard-owned parcel of land in the area and others have suggested a community school on Shady Hill itself, it is difficult to begin planning for the new school when no one can yet tell how many children will be attending it as a result of the Shady Hill construction.

Thus, though the Shady Hill project has been debated for over 15 years, the character of the project and its impact on the neighborhood remain to be seen. Much still has to be settled during the coming months of negotiation and cost-cutting.

Given the difficulties of financing and winning neighborhood acquiescence, it will be some time-probably at least a year-before bulldozers actually begin work on Shady Hill. Whatever detailed plan is finally adopted, the University may end up losing more friends than it makes through the Shady Hill project. Too many divergent interests are involved-from those of junior faculty anxious for lower rents through neighbors wanting a park or design improvements that cost more money to low-income community residents anxious for a piece of the Shady Hill pie.

Deciding among these interests will not be easy; what pleases one is only to likely to offend another. In fact, one observer of the situation recently suggested that the only action that could win the University friends, in the short run at least, would be to open up the area as a park until final plans are developed.

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