MANY TIMES in the past few years, we have excoriated Harvard in this column for its insensitivity toward Cambridge--its contributions to the city's housing shortage, its unwillingness to pay a fair share in the form of taxes, its condescension toward city politicians. But now there is something for us to praise--a major example of cooperation, good planning and neighborliness on the part of the University.
The story begins almost two years ago, when Harvard first began to consider the purchase of a large parking lot on Mt. Auburn St., one of the few remaining parcels of open space in the Square. Though it kept its plans secret from the press and the general public, the University did consult with city officials and neighborhood representatives, who were wary but not entirely negative; Harvard, they figured, might develop the land more responsibily than Louis DiGiovanni, a Cambridge entrepreneur.
And, it turned out, their hopes were well-founded. After paying $4 million for the site, Harvard immediately announced it would use the land at-least in part for housing, and that community representatives would play a major role in the design review for the project. And they have kept their promises: a tentative plan for the development, featuring an attractive mix of condominiums and offices, was mailed out to area residents this month over the signatures of Harvard and community leaders. Comments and criticisms were solicited; in all probability, ground will be broken within a year and both the neighbors and the owners will be happy with the results.
The episode proves one thing we have long maintained--it is in Harvard's interest to cooperate with the community. The University knew that the Harvard Square Defense Fund and other groups had brought the private developers of nearby Parcel 1b to their knees with a series of lawsuits; the parking lot development promised to be a case of similar cooperate-from-the-start or fight-it-out-to-the-bitter-end. Working together--financially and psychologically--is almost always less costly. And the compromises reached are usually about the same as would result from an adversarial proceeding.
These talks would seem to dash another fear of Harvard administrators--that local residents would be unreasonable if given a significant voice. The community leaders assembled for the talks recognized Harvard's need of at least breaking even on the venture, so they did not protest the office development included in the design. They did not try to block the project; they did not engage in rhetorical battles; they simply sat down with the University's representatives and worked out an amicable settlement.
If there is one failing in the scenario, it is this: while very good at listening to those organized and educated residents of immediately adjacent areas, Harvard paid little or no attention to those in the city less articulate or less powerful. As a result, there is not a serious commitment to providing low or moderate income housing in the new project. That oversight can easily be remedied in future proceedings by involving representatives of the city's poorer areas.
Harvard, it appears, will be taking a more active role in the development of the Square in years to come. We hope the University turns its back on past practices--evicting small bookstores to make way for pizzerias, for example. Instead, it should continue its admirable commitment to community involvement. It helps Cambridge, and it helps Harvard.
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