University attorneys last Thursday filed a court complaint against the Cambridge Rent Control Board's December ruling preventing Harvard from converting the Craigic Arms apartments Into luxury housing.
The lawsuit is not intended to put pressure on the board to reverse their 3-2 decision, said David M. Rosen, director of public relations for the University, but to "preserve the option of court action in the future."
Rosten said that Harvard had filed preliminary papers with the Cambridge District Court but would prefer to reach an agreement with the Board without litigation.
"We believe the Board's decision is an error and if the present stalemate persists, we expect to be able to convince a judge of that," said Robert K. Gad, one of the University's attorneys.
Under the city's housing codes, the Rent Control Board must approve special removal permits for any landlord who wishes to remove rent-control housing from the local market.
The University had wished to renovate their 80-year-old apartment building on Mt. Auburn Street and convert most of the structure's 59 housing units into apartments that would rent at $900 a month.
The Rent Control Board refused to approve Harvard's plans for the $2.5 million conversion because they feared the renovation would aggravate the already critical shortage of low-income housing in Cambridge, Roger Mervis, executive director of the Board, said yesterday.
"We also had a genuine concern that Harvard had neglected this property in the past," he said. "Giving them a permit would be rewarding them for their past failure to maintain the building."
Rosen said he would ask the Board to reconsider Harvard's plan.
"If they come before us with the same proposal," countered Mervis, "we will make the same decision as before." The Board is still convinced "our position is legally justifiable," he added.
Mervis added that Harvard could still go forward with basic improvements on Craigie Arms--required to bring the building up to state sanitary and building code levels--but cannot drastically renovate the building without the removal permits.
The lawsuit will not strain the relationship between the University and the Rent Control Board, Mervis said.
I think the Board recognizes that we filed a pro forma suit only to protect out right to pursue an appeal, agreed Jacqueline O'Neill of Harvard's office of Community Affairs. "We still have a solid working relationship with them," she added.
O'Neill also said she hoped the suit would move the Board to form a new policy to deal with the city's older buildings that require extensive renovation. "They simply don't address the issue of old stock that has outlived its useful life and needs to be replaced," she said.
"Craigie Arms will set a policy for the future," she added. "This is a case they can't ignore, because it's an instance that will repeat itself."
The lawsuit caps a two year controversy over the Craigie Arms building. When Harvard first announced its intention of evicting tenants to renovate the building several Craigie residents brought suit against the University.
Last spring most tenants finally agreed to drop their charges and move out, following a compromise under which Harvard promised to provide relocation expenses and to reserve about 25 percent of rental space for low-income tenants.