Agassiz Vs. Harvard

Last Monday, the Agassiz Neighborhood, next door to Harvard and filled with Harvard owned properties, won a major victory in the battle to control its own destiny. After weeks of delay, legal maneuverings and postponed final votes, the Cambridge City Council voted to down-zone two blocks in the Neighborhood. Down-zoning reduces the allowable density of future development, in this case, reducing the maximum density from an allowable 144 apartments per acre to 36 per acre. The lower figure is still higher than the density presently existing in Agassiz, which is equal to the City average of about 22 apartments per acre.

Harvard owns about one-half the land that was down-zoned. For at least a decade, the University has developed internal proposals for graduate, married student and faculty housing on their land. Down-zoning means that if Harvard proceeds with building plans, only one-fourth as much housing can be built as previously allowed. And if Harvard should want to build at a density greater than the new zoning allows, a variance must be obtained, necessitating a public hearing and a public forum for examination and discussion of the plans.

For the Agassiz Neighborhood, down-zoning has removed the immediate threats of over-development, and given the community leverage over Harvard if the University seeks a zoning variance. In the zoning controversy, the Agassiz community demonstrated a cohesiveness and a strength as a neighborhood that has its own reward. Their concern about Harvard's land arises, not only because of the threat of high density development, but because a large portion of the land is one of only two large open spaces in the neighborhood (the other is the Sachs Estate--also owned by Harvard).

The Agassiz Neighborhood is a richly diverse neighborhood, composed of a great variety of people; families, children, students, couples, married and unmarried, elderly persons; incomes and aspirations ranging from low and poor to upper middle and upwardly mobile; structures ranging from largely wood frame single, double and triple houses to a few low and mid-rise apartment buildings. It is in microcosm the urban mix, with all its problems and its promise. It is bounded roughly by Massachusetts Avenue on the west, Beacon Street (the Cambridge-Somerville line) on the north-east and Harvard University and Museum Street on the south and south-east; its main street is Oxford Street.

Its awakening as a neighborhood with a collective identity began in 1969 with the advent of the Community Schools Program; a city-wide program of social services, recreation, adult education and alternative learning run out of neighborhood elementary schools, in this case the Agassiz School on Oxford Street. Consciousness raising continued in 1972 when the neighborhood organized successfully against a zoning variance petition for a high rise apartment building and formed the Agassiz Neighborhood Planning Group.


The north end of the neighborhood was successfully downzoned, and Harvard's attempts to develop the Sachs Estate (dubbed Norton Woods by the instant ecologists in the neighborhood) in high density, high rise, faculty housing were successfully resisted, both in 1973. In 1974 the Planning Group met several times with Harvard to discuss issues, formulated a community response to Harvard's "Long Range Plan - An Interim Report," supported attempts to down-zone Massachusetts Avenue within the neighborhood and most recently has launched a successful effort to down-zone the two block area described above.

Lesley College, which borders the Agassiz Neighborhood, is considered to be the worst offender in recent years in trampling over neighborhood sensibilities. Lesley is aggressive when acquiring residential properties for institutional use and in altering the physical and social character of the neighborhood. Less than ten years ago, Lesley was confined to the corner of Oxford and Everett Streets, but not it covers most of Everett and Wendall Streets and a two-block frontage on Oxford Street from Hammond to Sacremento. Harvard, however, has taken most of the heat for neighborhood intrusion, largely because it is a bigger target and because the University's holdings include the only large open spaces now used for recreation in the neighborhood. Unfair it may seem to Harvard, but it was ever thus.

Harvard needs to ask itself, "what do these neighborhoods want and why is it important to them?" Part of it is a need to control their own lives, or at least to feel that they are not the victims of forces beyond their control. Neighborhood stability and preservation of the quality of life motivates these people. They want to live among friends and neighbors, in a residential neighborhood with small scaled buildings, children, green space, playgrounds, corner stores and the certainty that it will remain that way. Large buildings, buildings filled with transients, people who have no long term interest in the area, heavy traffic, loss of open space, are all changes they resist.

This is nothing new. Other neighborhoods surrounding Harvard are also stirring to protect themselves from outside pressures, including the perceived threat of Harvard expansion. The Riverside Neighborhood, southeast of Dunster and Mather Houses, led by Saundra Graham, was the first and most conspicious example. In a protest against Harvard expansion in that neighborhood, Graham led an occupation of the stage at Harvard's Commencement in 1970. Some say that act launched her into her present City Council seat.

Neighborhood 10, loosely called the Brattle Street Area, led by Martha and Paul Lawrence, has been vigorously opposing disruptive change in their neighborhood with a successful fight against a high-rise hotel and a continuing struggle against the proposed Kennedy Library. New or revived neighborhood associations are active in Mid-Cambridge, east of the Yard, and Neighborhood 9, around the Radcliffe House area.

Harvard's face in the community has launched a hundred organizations and a thousand candidacies for higher office. In past years, the so-called Independent City Councilors could be counted on, if for nothing else, their opposition to Harvard (or MIT). Councilor Alfred Vellucci is famous to generations of freshmen for his proposals to pave Harvard Yard for a parking lot, to have the University moved to Peterborough, N.H. and to have the street in front of the Lampoon renamed Yale Square.

On the other hand the Cambridge Civic Association Councilors, the so-called liberal councilors, frequently from Harvard-oriented backgrounds, could be counted on to support the institutions. Recent times have seen a reversal of this, and few people, including the councilors involved, can really explain why. Possibly, the activist, concerned and frequently liberal citizen has lost faith in his ability to deal with the larger issues of poverty, the War and inflation and is increasingly turned inward, to a scale that he can have some impact on, and that has some meaning to him. Increasingly, also, the great liberal institutions have fallen short for those who asked much (perhaps too much) of them. And they have particularly fallen short in the close view of neighborhood concerns.

Brett Donham '60, M. Arch '64, is an architect in Boston. He spent his youth in Neighborhood 10, lived in Agassiz during graduate school, and is now a resident of Neighborhood 9.