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Activists Fight Harvard Hotel

Anti-Development Group May Sue City Over Gulf Site

By Julian E. Barnes

Even as Harvard backhoes clear the land on the former Gulf station site on Mass. Ave. to make way for a 116-room University hotel, anti-development activists in the city are planning an all-out offensive to force a change in the design of the controversial project.

In a letter to city planners, members of the Cambridge Citizens for Liveable Neighborhoods (CCLN) charge that the existing plans for the building violate height limits in the city's zoning ordinance and call on the city to revoke the building permit for the project.

And in an interview yesterday, CCLN member R. Phillip Dowds said that the group would sue the city if it does not reinterpret its zoning ordinance so as to resolve conflicts in the way it calculates height.

"We are hoping to avoid the bother and expense of going to court and we hope that the city departments would take interest in looking at the interpretation without being sued," said Dowds.

"If we were to go to court they may determine that the permit was issued in error and Harvard might have to send some steel beams back," he added.

Although the building conforms to the 40-foot height limit under the city's current interpretation of the zoning law, CCLN argues that the hotel's facade and skylights would raise the building almost 12 feet over the limit.

Dowds said that the city's "creative reading" of the zoning law accounted for the discrepancy.

But Harvard and city officials both denied any conflict with the current zoning, which the city council approved over Harvard's objection in June, 1989.

"To our knowledge there is no violation," said Harvard Director of Planning Kathy A. Spiegelman. "We believe it complies with the zoning ordinances and [the city] agreed when it issued the building permit."

Harvard broke ground for the Quincy Square Inn on August 20 after months of debate with neighborhood organizations and the city, as well as internal conflicts in its own Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The University had originally planned to build a hotel roughly twice the size of the one currently under construction, but scaled back its design to conform with the new zoning.

Maple Controversy

The City Council Monday night called on Harvard to resolve another controversy dogging the hotel project: the fate of two 30-year old Norway maple trees at the back of the lot.

In an order sponsored by Councillor William H. Walsh, a longtime Harvard critic, calls on Harvard to achieve a balance between "promoting the new and preserving the old."

Harvard and city officials reached an agreement on landscaping the site last June under which the University pledged to replace the maples with 10 smaller trees.

City Arborist Jack R. Kelly said the city agreed to the replacement because the original trees had already seriously damaged by the construction.

"I have to look at what is in the best interest of the city," Kelly said. "For long-range planning it was better to get new trees established."

Harvard Real Estate, which manages the site for the University, was not aware of the order and considers the agreement to be in force, said Scott Levitan, assistant vice president for construction and planning.

"It was determined that the improvements were of greater benefit to the city than saving those two trees," Levitan said.

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