On Shaky Ground


IN CHINA, they say, scientists are learning to predict earthquakes by studying barnyard animals. When the pigs snort and hens cackle nervously, researchers know the tectonic plates will soon commence to bump and grind, and the earth to heave.

In Cambridge, the hens have been squawking for 20 years. "All together too powerful," they clucked. "Something must be done." And last weekend the predictable happened. Tremors of the sort that have tossed other American institutions since the mid-sixties finally reached sheltered Harvard.

Gov. Edward J. King Saturday signed into law a bill repealing the University's exemption from city zoning. The bill, which carries enormous practical significance, also offers symbolic proof of Harvard's increasing impotence in its dealings with its neighbors.

In the 350 years since its founding, Harvard has never taken orders from Cambridge City Hall. For 330 years. City Hall didn't even try; in the periods when the University didn't control city politics they abandoned them entirely, usually to ethnic immigrants who cared little about the interests of the rich and powerful school up by Brattle St. But times changed, and the city grew more crowded, more professionally run, and less willing to sacrifice its tax rolls and residential neighborhoods to the glory that is Harvard. Since the early 1960s, when its first enemies began to appear on the city council, the University has relied on its financial and legal resources, as well as the ineptitude of its opponents, to prevent outside meddling in "internal" affairs.

But the University's strongest legal bulwark was swept away last weekend. The battle to repeal Harvard's zoning exemption was by no means a rout; traditionally, churches and schools have been excused not only from taxes but from zoning as well, allowed to expand, build and demolish where they please. Cambridge, pointing to maps showing the city with more than 50 per cent of its land institutionally-owned, won the right to limit institutional conversion of property two years ago. That privilege came with only one string--Harvard was not to be included. The men who wrote the state's constitution loved the only University in Massachusetts and made special reference to its exalted status in the charter. The state legislature, three centuries later, interpreted the passage to mean Cambridge could zone Lesley College or Buckingham, Browne, Nichols but not Harvard.

State Rep. Barney Frank '61 launched the next step in the fight--constitutions, he pointed out, can be amended, and unless Harvard cooperated, he threatened, the Bay State's would be. Unnerved by the thought of a statewide referendum on the question of special protection for the University, with the attendant spotlight on its sins past and present, Harvard bit the bullet and decided not to lobby against the exemption repeal when it appeared in the legislature this year.

The Government and Community relations office stayed on the sidelines (except for a plea from chief lobbyist Roger Moore before the committee that reviewed the bill), but opposition still surfaced. Delays snagged the bill all along the line until, in the mad rush that annually preceeds adjournment, the bill turned up again in the fray. Someone in the governor's office--speculation centered on legislative aide and Harvard alumnus Neil Lynch-- managed to get the bill returned to the floor of the senate. Only appeals from old King friends, City Manager James L. Sullivan, State Sen. Michael LoPresti, and a host of other local officials saved the bill. King initialed the measure at 6:25 a.m. Saturday, 31 minutes before the legislature adjourned.

"There was a lot of heavy lobbying against the bill--whether it was from Harvard itself, Harvard loyalists in the legislature, or someone with absolutely no interest in the matter I don't know," Sullivan said later. "I tend to doubt the latter possibility, however," he added. Through it all, University officialdom maintained a stiff, rigormortised upper lip. "We have no objections to the bill." Robin Schmidt, vice-president for government and community affairs, said, although he would not say he supported the measure. "This has all been done in a reasonable manner," Schmidt's assistant, Lewis Armistead, added.

The proffered reason for Harvard's calm, as explained by Armistead, is that the University has "always abided by city zoning anyway, so the new law won't make any difference." That statement, repeated by every Harvard government relations official, is akin to Derek Bok insisting self-righteously that he has never flapped his arms and flown away--true but meaningless. When pressed, Harvard admits that the reason they have never broken city zoning is because it has never before applied to them. For example: Harvard is currently converting 7 Summer Rd., a residential apartment building, to office space. On the city's zoning books, Sumner Rd. is designated cl, which does not allow office use. So how can the University claim never to have broken zoning laws? Schmidt explains that "educational institutions are not prohibited from putting offices there." He is absolutely correct; until the legislature repealed zoning exemptions last year, educational institutions were not prohibited from putting offices anywhere because legally they couldn't be stopped. And until last weekend, while Harvard retained its own exemption, the University could have put the Science Center on pontoons and floated it down the Charles River without breaking zoning laws.

HARVARD's sophistry, its whistling in the dark, seem to indicate that the University is actually very worried about losing its zoning exemption, as well it should be. The city's community development office is currently surveying present institutional land use throughout the city; by the end of the year, they will draw up guidelines showing precisely where the universities and colleges may and may not go. The guidelines are subject to amendment by the Planning Board and the City Council, and if recent anti-Harvard rhetoric is any indication the University may find a paper wall erected around its current campus. Chances are, had the exemption been repealed 15 years ago. Mather House would not have been built. Certainly Harvard would have had a much more difficult time constructing the Radcliffe Gym, which powerless neighbors squawked about to small avail. And 7 Sumner Rd. would probably still be an apartment building--and nothing else.

The change in Harvard's relationship with the city will be seen this summer as the University prepares its report to the community. Early in the 1970s, when Harvard issued the first such report, everyone listened. The papal encircular would show whose homes were safely outside the self-imposed "red-line" expansion boundary and whose properties Harvard was looking at with interest, not to mention capital.

This year, the report will be of less interest for the city no longer depends on Harvard's good will and benificence. "For years we criticized because it was all we could do." City Councilor David Sullivan, who drafted the bill repealing the exemptions, says. And to a certain extent the criticisms were effective; Harvard, perhaps because it realized for the first time what pain it was inflicting, ended some large-scale evictions and relocated other tenants. "But now," Sullivan continues, "we have real power. We can do more than plead."

In a neighborhood example of Kissinger-style linkage, Cambridge's new-found regulatory control could convert into political currency redeemable in other battles with the University. The next time Harvard scientists decide they need a laser plasma lab, city officials may be able to trade zoning exemptions for increased tax payments, more low-income housing like the River-Howard St. lot recently donated by the University, or even something as small as athletic facility privileges for neighborhood residents.

For many years the most common refrain among Harvard's critics has been that the University is prepared to talk, talk, and talk some more, but never to act except at its own inclination. "If nothing else, maybe this can be the wedge; we need a partnership, we need a dialogue," former City Councilor Mary Ellen Preusser says.

But Harvard, loaded with legal talent and able to afford the cost of going to court, could still make trouble for the city. It seems unlikely they will challenge the repeal of the exemption; not only would it tempt Frank to make good his constitutional amendment threat, but government relations officials have said on the record they think the repeal is constitutional, a stance they would have to repudiate should the matter go before a judge. But the University can challenge every period and comma of whatever legislation emerges restricting expansion. "Harvard always wins--it will just take them more time and cost them more money now," one city official predicts.

A more serious possibility is that Harvard will reenter city politics with a vengeance. Now, representatives of the University don't even attend council meetings. But the University, which has many times in the city's history played a powerful role in local politics, could return to the forum. It will be hard; the Cambridge Civic Association, a Harvard voice in the past when it represented mainly the Brattle St. upper-crust now claims large numbers of young, liberal tenants who have the most to fear from Harvard's expansion. But it may not be impossible--it is likely that the University could find a few faithful allies on the city council, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done.

If Armistead and Schmidt want to start spending their Monday nights at city council, they should begin soon--the crucial vote may be on how the institutional expansion guidelines are to be drawn, and that could take place late next fall, not much time to mend some fences that have fallen into disrepair. "For years everyone on the city council has been abusing Harvard verbally--it will be interesting to see how much was show, and how many will vote to really stick it to them," one city councilor, who asked not to be identified, said. "Even if they do start politicking, at least they're paying attention to us." David Sullivan adds.

The first damage estimates are almost always worse than reality would dictate. Harvard may not run head-on into the city for several years, and when it does it could find a collection of pussycat councilors.

But even if last Saturday was a high water mark in the city's battle against the University, the repeal is symbolic. In years past, the city council would not have supported the measure, certainly not unanimously as they did this time. And the Beacon Hill Alumni Association, also known as the state legislature, would not have passed it. Victim to political forces not unlike the social ones that rocked its campus in the late sixties, Harvard was unable to fend off institutionalized calls for change. An organized, impassioned group in the city finally triggered the earthquake, and things will never be quite the same, for Harvard always have to listen will have to listen to the aftershocks.

WHEN THE UNIVERSITY was founded in the 1630s, the town of Salem offered hundreds of beachfront acres for a campus. Harvard's founders, who liked the atmosphere of this city, chose instead to settle in Cambridge. In a few years, the University may wish it had built on sand.