Legislating a Town-Gown Truce

When Mary Ellen Preusser, former Cambridge city councilor, initiated a petition last year calling for legislation restricting university expansion, town-gown relations in the city took a new turn.

"We've all seen a great deal of rhetoric over the years, but this was the first attempt to do anything through legislation. The universities found it very shocking," Preusser says.

The result of Preusser's petition--a law enabling Cambridge to regulate institutional use of lower-density residentially-zoned areas--is the most recent development in the city's 20-year-old struggle over land acquisition by universities.

Harvard's expansion has driven up the cost of living in the surrounding areas since students compete for housing and university land purchases reduce the tax base.

"We've seen the university expand into neighborhoods that have been struggling to retain a residential character," Preusser said.


Ironically, the land use bill passed last year does not limit Harvard's expansion. The university, protected in the constitution of the Commonwealth, is currently exempt from any regulations the city passes. But this exemption may not stand much longer. A bill repealing Harvard's exemption on this particular issue has already passed State Senate and House committees. The Commonwealth is expected to adopt the legislation later this year.

Concern about the future of this bill is particularly strong because of the expiration of another Harvard policy. In 1972, the University agreed to outline on a map its development plans, saying that these "red lined" areas would be the sole focus of its future acquisitions until 1980.

Although Harvard drew its own "red lines"--there is some dispute on whether the university has strictly followed them--the policy has at least given Cambridge some idea as to what to expect. Many city leaders fear what will happen, now that the policy has expired.

"We told the city that we would live by the red line until a new community report is issued and we intend to stick by our word," Lewis A. Armistead, director of community relations says. "Since we've always lived by the zoning, ordinances, the repeal of the constitutional exemption won't really affect us," he adds.

Although the battle has traditionally centered around Harvard, the city's largest landholder, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Lesley College have more recently become embroiled.

In contrast to Harvard, MIT's relationship with Cambridge over the past decade has been relatively placid. But this is largely due to MIT's propitious location. While Harvard is surrounded by residential areas, MIT is contiguous with primarily industrial land. As a result, its territorial expansion has raised only a fraction of the ruckus caused by Harvard's

The peace, however, has become very fragile.

In the late '60s, MIT bought about 40 acres of relatively undeveloped land in East Cambridge from the Simplex Wire and Cable Company, and in the last 10 years the school has been slowly buying up property adjacent to the original parcel. Much of this land was purchased from small industries or residents who were forced to leave.

Once the area was largely family-oriented. Now students occupy many of the apartments.

This area along the city's industrial belt has one of the worst crime rates in the Boston area. Much of the vacant land at the Simplex site has been used as a dump. In addition, MIT has leased property to the state for drug clinics, halfway houses, mental health rehabilitation centers, and "wet drops" for alcoholics.