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Smoothing Relations

A Long-Awaited Document Represents a New Era in Town-Gown Relations

By Mary LOUISE Kelly

Last Monday, the city and its five universities and colleges released their report on town-gown relations. The groundbreaking document calls for greater communication between Cambridge and its universities and easier access to University resources for city residents.

Twenty years ago, Cambridge and Harvard seemed the bitterest of foes. Neighborhood activists, concerned about the University's seemingly insatiable appetite for land, found that they couldn't get University administrators to return their calls. Harvard didn't seem to think there was a problem.

But that was then and this is now.

Last week, after a year of putting their heads together, Harvard, Cambridge and the city's other universities released a report on town-gown relations which both sides say represents the cutting edge in how universities and their host municipalities can and should help each other out.

The 18-member task force of city officials and delegates from Harvard, MIT, Cambridge College, Lesley College and the Episcopal Divinity School which created the document--the now disbanded Mayor's Committee on University-Community Relations--is possibly the first such group in the nation, says John Shattuck, committee member and Harvard vice-president for government, community and public affairs.

"In many respects we are now way ahead of other cities in town-gown relations," says Cambridge mayor Alice K. Wolf. "The report is kind of a landmark in that people from the community and its institutions sat down and reached an understanding about each other's concerns, which hadn't ever happened before."

The document is the final product of extensive meetings since early May. It makes recommendations on how to increase communication between the city and its universities and provide greater citizen access to university resources.

Committee members say the report creates a valuable framework for improved communication between the three factions and addresses financial and educational issues which have not been touched before.

"Not everybody's going to say we solved all the problems of the world. If you could go back through Harvard records of the 18th and 19th centuries, you would probably find records of town-gown strains," says James P. Maloney, committee member and finance director for the city of Cambridge. "But we took a giant step forward in understanding each other."

Councillors largely agree that the document constitutes a very solid starting point for opening up discussion between Cambridge and its colleges and universities.

"I think the results are good in that it is the first statement really agreed to by the city and the colleges and universities that there are problems and that they need further work," says Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55. "Nothing really had been set down in black and white before."

But while the councillors praised the committee for their hard work, they leveled several points of criticism as well.

Too Vague?

Outside critics say they wonder if the document may be too long on good intentions and too short on specifics.

"Nothing is solved by that report," Duehay says. "It really represents nothing more than an agenda."

Committee members stress that the report is meant to serve as a framework for communication, rather than a specific trouble-shooter.

And the document does call for several definite actions on the part of the city and the universities, Shattuck says.

It advocates the preparation of a separate Growth Policy Document by 1992 to address city-wide and neighborhood growth and development issues such as land use, traffic and parking, and open space planning.

The growth document would probably set up Harvard's Red Line--a barrier agreed upon in 1972 to prevent Harvard expansion into residential neighborhoods--as a model for Cambridge's other educational institutions, says John R. Pitkin, a committee member and chair of the mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association.

In addition, the report suggests that Cambridge and its universities consider pursuing increased state and federal aid for communities and their host universities.

"Such assistance would be recognition of the benefits, fiscal and otherwise, that are provided by the universities to the state and nation, and of the significance to these educational institutions of the municipal services provided by their host communities," the document states.

The publication also urges that a university database be developed to provide the city with accurate annual records of population and housing use, periodic growth projections and transportation studies.

But the bulk of the 44-page document is devoted to much more general suggestions for improving communications between the city and its colleges and universities.

And there are limitations to what the committee can do even with these specific recommendations unless they establish a more complete staff representation, Duehay says.

Committee members holding full-time jobs as university or city officials simply may not have time to really concentrate on implementing the issues raised in the report, Duehay adds.

The current town-gown committee has no full-time or paid members, and there has been no discussion of establishing a stipend for future members, Mayor Wolf says.

"If you want to get away from just rhetoric, you have to pay people to really think things through," Duehay says. "You need people with lots of time and technical knowledge."

Duehay also says he questions whether the document provides accurate statistics for counting university students.

He points to the 20,000 Harvard School of Continuing Education students who commute each week to Harvard Square and thereby contribute to traffic and congestion. These students are not counted under the report's current tallies, Duehay says.

"The whole business of adult education wasn't really very well understood by the committee," Duehay says. "It's a much more vibrant community than those figures would suggest."

And one councillor criticized the report for allowing the universities to get away with making insufficient payments to the city.

"Harvard and MIT combined own 11 percent of the city's property--that's a lot," says Councillor William H. Walsh. "We're going to be up against the wall with almost a zero-based budget next year. Reality has got to set into the universities."

Both Harvard and MIT are exempt from paying Cambridge taxes because of their status as educational institutions, but they have negotiated in-lieu-of-tax agreements to compensate the city for the revenues it would earn if the properties were not tax-exempt.

Lasting Implications

With the town-gown task force's year-long stint now over, committee members and city officials agree that a permanent forum for communication needs to be established.

"My feeling is if this is something that's just thrown in the trash and never looked at again, then it was a total waste of time," says R. Philip Dowds, committee member and a representative of Cambridge Citizens for Livable Neighborhoods.

The report urges that an advisory committee be established to ensure that the issues discussed in the document remain in the public arena.

Such a committee would meet every three to six months, the report suggests, and would draw on representatives of the city government, citizens' groups, and the colleges and universities.

Several members of the current committee and the proposed one would probably overlap, Dowds says, adding that John Shattuck would likely continue to represent Harvard's interests on a permanent advisory board.

In addition to encouraging continued communications between the city and its universities, the committee would conduct an annual review of the publication in order to keep it continually updated, Pitkin says.

"[The advisory committee] is expressly not intended to act as a replacement or overseer of any of the public or private bodies currently at work in the city," the document states. "Rather, it is a vehicle to insure continued thoughtful public dialogue on these issues, and to foster continued university and community cooperation in the interest of a strong, diverse city for us all."

Pitkin says the council may not fully understand that the proposed purpose of the advisory board would not be to implement the document, but rather to continue brainstorming ideas.

"The council has understood the report in a way that I find somewhat surprising and that was not what we intended," Pitkin says. "It's far more appropriate for existing institutions like the council to address these issues than to set up a new one."

Committee members did clash somewhat during the process of formulating the report over what they saw as the role of the advisory board, Wolf says.

But she says that most of them now agree with Pitkin that the proposed committee should serve mostly to provide recommendations.

"The advisory committee is very important, because there has to be follow-up for [the report] to have any meaning," Wolf says. "This is only the beginning of the process, not the end."

"I think a lot of things are going to grow out of this," Pitkin says. "It's going to be a very significant document."

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