Citizens' Group Battles to 'Save Square'

"Harvard is on a collision course with the community. Glasnost is over," says Gladys P. Gifford about the University's plan to raze the Mass. Ave. Gulf station and build a hotel on the site.

Gifford is the president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF). She says she opposes the University's plan because the hotel would increase traffic in the area.

This is not the first time she has gone against the University she calls "hell-bent on exploiting their own front yard--front and back." As head of a community group dedicated to keeping Harvard Square the way it is, she makes it her job to stop developers, like Harvard, who want to change it.

Gifford notes that she has many supporters among the faculty and administration, but few among the University's property managers. "We just don't understand why Harvard Real Estate is so short-sighted and doesn't see the value of controlled real estate development," she says.

HSDF has been set against large-scale development in the Square it formed in 1979 to fight plans for the Charles Hotel complex. After that case, Cambridge citizens decided to make a permanent "watchdog organization" out of their group.


Today, Gifford says, HSDF--with an annual budget of between $10,000 and $15,000--works to scale down new construction, pitting it against those who capitalize on inflated real estate values in the Square.

"We want to see development in the Square done in a controlled, sensitive and environmentally sound fashion."

To Gifford, that means limiting the height of new buildings, preserving historic landmarks, parks and green spaces. The group has also secured a cap on the number of liquor licenses granted here.

For the past few years, the fund has sought a maximum floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 3, which would require the floor area of a building to be within three times the surface area of the property. Under such a law, for example, a building containing no more than 30,000 square feet of floor space would be allowed on a 10,000 square-foot plot of land.

The City Council has never approved such a measure, in part because Harvard would not back it. The University argues that such a system would not preserve the city's character measurably, while it would hinder Harvard's plans.

"Right now the University position is that to downzone the entire Square to a 3.0 FAR is to diminish the University's growth potential without a uniform public gain," says Kathy P. Spiegelman, Harvard's director of planning.