Last Stand at 7 Sumner Rd.

The Spartans chose to stand and fight at Thermopylae; the Red Sox and pinstripes slug it out regularly at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, the French met their match at Dien Bien Phu, and the Texans theirs at the Alamo. In Cambridge, two rivals--Harvard and the city's tenant movement--will fight to the finish this fall in an Alamo-sized brick building, 7 Sumner Rd.

Harvard began the war 21 months ago when it decided to evict the building's 16 tenants to make room for Graduate School of Design (GSD) office space, a move greeted with less than enthusiasm by the families in the building. The tenants went to the city rent board and won a temporary victory about six months after the eviction notices went out. But the University didn't give up; when some tenants moved out--citing the insecurity that accompanied living in a building slated for conversion--GSD officials installed office equipment. For the remaining units, they went to the rent board again, this time seeking removal permits under a new city ordinance designed to limit property conversion.

A board examiner is currently considering Harvard's claim that it should be allowed to evict the tenants since it has created move housing elsewhere in the city. Whatever the board's decision, though, it is likely to prompt a court challenge and neigher side seems to be speaking in conciliatory tones.

"Seven Sumner Road has become a case in point, a symbol in community-Harvard relations," City Councilor and tenant activist David Sullivan says. "Harvard is attempting to take a building the city and its population requires and turn it into offices that have been elsewhere for a long time," he adds. Sullivan says tenants around the city are "prepared to fight into the courts to keep Harvard out of there.... The tenant movement is taking position that if Harvard wins, it will be a precedent."

University officials are saying little publicly, but they, too, concede privately that the chances of a rapprochement are slight. "We still want that building," one staffer explains. And University spokesmen says they have not yet reached a decision on whether to take the matter to court should they lose before the rent board. They add that they have definitely not rejected the idea of a legal challenge.


Testimony two weeks ago before the rent board turned nasty on several occasions, with a plethora of objections. And Harvard is wielding one club--should they take the issue to court, they might challenge the entire removal permit ordinance, which so far has cured the condominium epidemic.

Compromise is possible in that case--the most likely scenario has Harvard using the bottom two floors for office space, but allowing tenants to remain in the upper two stories. But Sullivan predicts that Harvard is afraid of "losing face." If he is right, and if the tenant forces keep up the fight, 7 Sumner Rd.'s stormy history may just be beginning.