The Defense Fund was born out of a struggle in the mid-1970s to develop the area where the Kennedy School of Government and the Charles Square Hotel now rest.
At that time, the property belonged to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and was used as a "car barn," where subway cars were parked when not in use.
Priscilla J. McMillan, treasurer and a founding member of the Fund, remembers the conflict as a galvanizing force for local residents who until that time had been divided into sectional neighborhood associations.
"People were beginning to be more environmentally conscious and began to realize several things at once."
Plans for a memorial library and museum dedicated to former President John F. Kennedy '40 would have meant more tourist buses, cars, congestion and pollution.
The residents won a compromise, and Columbia Point in Dorchester was chosen as the final destination for the Kennedy memorial.
The Defense Fund was founded out of that struggle as a non-profit corporation in 1979, dedicated "to preventing the environmental and ecological deterioration of the Harvard Square area."
Whose Job Is It?
At the crux of many disputes over development in the Square is the granting of special permits that allow developers to deviate from the standard zoning requirements.
Special permits, unlike variances, do not require the applicant to demonstrate that a hardship is imposed by the zoning ordinances, says Lester W. Barber, the director of land use and zoning in the city's Community Development Department.
"[The Defense Fund] views the special permit as something that should almost never be given," Barber says. "That is not how the Planning Board...views it."
Members of the Defense Fund argue for a more restrictive approach to special permits.
"Special permits should be specifically for the community and not the developer," says John R. Moot '43, a member of the Defense Fund's board of directors.
Critics of the Defense Fund dispute its interpretation of the law, and some even assert that the group should not be in the business of legal interpretation. One Harvard Square property owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he approved of public debate over development, but only in the "proper forum."
"Part of the thing with the Defense Fund is [it wants to] seem like the 'big monster,'" he said. "It wants people to pay homage to it first" before presenting plans to the Planning Board.