Cambridge Faces Harvard

If there is one issue that officials in the Harvard Planning Office hate to see raised in an election year, it is the charge that Harvard treats the City of Cambridge badly. This is an election year, and already, there are many fingers being angrily waved at the University. Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, in a City Council meeting two weeks ago, declared a symbolic "state of emergency in Cambridge" and proclaimed that there would be no more Harvard buildings constructed in Cambridge. "Finito" Vellucci said, "No more buildings," In a more concrete fashion however, Cambridge residents are taking matters into their own hands, confronting Harvard with a more realistic dillemma than Vellucci's campaign rhetoric.

Down-zoning is the name of the game, and there is more than one piece of property in Cambridge where Harvard is likely to lose some ground. The City Council, the only body with the authority to make such a change in the city's present zoning map, is expected the next month to receive two more down-zoning petitions from Cambridge residents concerned with preventing further massive Harvard construction in their neighborhood.

The most controversial petition was submitted in early September by the residents of Observatory Hill, who requested that the Harvard property in that area be down-zoned to leave the University with less than one-seventh of the building space it now owns. Five of the six members of the Cambridge Planning Board favored such a change in the zoning map at their meeting last week, although it has not yet submitted a formal recommendation to the Council. City councilors have also said they would favor some form of down-zoning.

Another parcel of property--owned by Harvard and Lesley College, bordered by Linnean and Fernald Streets in West Cambridge--is less likely to undergo a zoning change, despite neighborhood residents' efforts to restrict the amount of building space in the area. Officials in the Planning Office, however, say the problem is of greater concern to Lesley, which plans to expand on most of that property.

But down-zoning is only one of the means city residents are hoping to employ to limit the University's expansion.


One of the largest losses Harvard could take in the near future, is a parcel of land near Sacramento Field that the city is presently trying take by its right of eminent domain--if it can raise the money. Although no definite plans for housing construction have been proposed by the University, Russell E. Hill, director of real estate, says the outcome of the city's proposal to take back the land could have a major effect on Harvard's plans to build graduate student housing there.

By changing the zoning map and limiting the amount of building space available on certain Harvard properties, Cambridge citizens have discovered what they consider a useful tool for limiting the construction of large buildings in a city that was heavily zoned for industrial and commercial development in 1961. For the past eight years, down-zoning has emerged as a definite trend, Richard Morgan, junior planner for the city, says. Morgan notes that almost three-fourths of the requests for down-zoning since 1969 have been successful--because, he says, residents and developers have both realized that the city would become overdeveloped if the original zoning regulations were fully pursued.

Opinions of the usefulness of down-zoning vary widely, though. Richard E. McKinnon, administrative assistant to the City Council, says he would prefer to see local residents sit down with Harvard planners to decide what kinds of buildings would be acceptable in their neighborhood.

"Down-zoning is really spot-zoning," McKinnon says. He adds that to down-zone is not the proper way to use the zoning laws. Changing only a small portion of the zoning map, he maintains, is normally considered illegal, although the council has the power to grant special petitions to that effect.

Harvard officials also view down-zoning with a critical eye. Harold L. Goyette, director of the Planning Office, describes the recent trend in down-zoning as "a kind of panacea--a virulent disease for people who see so much change and have no control over it. I think people have latched on to down-zoning as a means of presenting change," Goyette adds.

But what annoys Goyette even more than a down-zoning petition is what he calls "the monolithic view Cambridge residents have of Harvard." He illustrated the point with an anecdote about a neighbor he once had when he lived in Cambridge. The neighbor was carrying on about a car parked in front of his driveway. The car had a Harvard sticker, and the neighbor was furious "at Harvard, not the individual," Goyette says, for blocking his driveway entrance. After Goyette told the neighbor to call the police and have the car towed--as he would in any other similar circumstance--the neighbor exclaimed that this was a Harvard car, so he couldn't do anything about it. Goyette says he told the man to have the car towed, regardless of the sticker it carried, pointing out that it belonged to a careless individual, not the University.

Goyette uses the incident to explain the kind of psychological relationship many Cambridge residents have with Harvard: a view of the University only as an institution, instead of a community of individuals. The philosophy behind Harvard's expansion is its attempt to build a "community of scholars, and inherent in that goal, is the need to supply adequate facilities." Goyette says.

That line is by no means inconsistent with the attitude of many earlier Harvard administrators. In a speech at the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association on June 13. 1957, former President Nathan M. Pusey '28, perhaps best summed up Harvard's future expansion in the city:

We can cope with the problem created by the increased number of students if we will build more small communities within the large community. We should not worry because in the 20th century the small community can no longer be co-extensive with the whole. For experience has shown that a small community set in the large environment acquires by that very fact a richness, and an importance which it could not otherwise have. Harvard can continue to be Harvard for a long time to come.

Of course, describing the ways Harvard has made sure that it will "continue to be Harvard," is like conducting an endless discussion. It is virtually impossible to include all the various properties and buildings Harvard owns in Cambridge. The total amount of Harvard-owned property in Cambridge adds up to well over 200 acres, and ranges from everything to a fruit stand on Putnam St. to Blair Pond in the southeast end of Cambridge. Harvard owns housing for its students, employees and Cambridge residents. In fact, one tenant of a Harvard-owned apartment building, when asked about how much he thought Harvard owned in Cambridge, just sighed and answered, "What doesn't Harvard own?"

Recommended Articles