City Debates Knafel Center's Fate at Hearings

Two days of public hearings before the Mid-Cambridge Conservation District Commission (MCDC) began the process that will decide the fate of Harvard's proposed Knafel Center for Government and International Studies.

After nearly three years of public debate and revision of the Knafel Center plans, the MCDC began the first of many upcoming reviews that could prevent construction.

But Harvard's plans remained unsatisfactory to many residents who showed up to packed hearings last night and Monday night.

The size of the buildings, the increased traffic they may bring to the area and the institutional feel of the design--on the border of a residential neighborhood--have all drawn steady fire. And even within Harvard, several staff members who live in the area questioned the need for the center.

"The sentiment in the community is that this is unacceptable," said John Pitkin, the head of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, a neighborhood advisory organization. "[The board] could not approve the design and make the neighbors happy."


The current scheme--substantially different from a 1998 version on another site--would replace Coolidge Hall and the University Information Services building with two buildings connected by a tunnel under Cambridge Street. The structures would allow Harvard to consolidate the government department and all of the centers for international study, leaving the Littauer Center entirely to the economics department.

However, before construction can begin, the University must secure the consent of numerous city boards, including the City Council, the Board of Zoning Approval and the MCDC.

John Moose, chair of the MCDC board, called this "the most complex issue that the commission has had to tackle."

"It's incredibly complicated and all the city boards are going to trip over each other," added Steven Cohen, the vice chair of the commission.

"A Transitional Zone"

The four-hour meetings last night and Monday night were concerned with small details of the plan rather than the project as a whole, but almost every new issue has acted as a sticking point for the review.

Monday's meeting sent Harvard representatives back to the University to research the number of foreign dignitaries who might be expected to visit and the exact uses planned for the large classroom within the center.

And while the MCDC has the authority to grant conditional approval to the plan, the most contentious issues appear nearly unsolvable on the current site.

According to Pitkin, the problems hinge on Harvard's proposed use of what it has termed "a transitional zone." The area on Cambridge Street links the Harvard campus to a residential neighborhood.

Residents cannot reconcile themselves to the building's size, the increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic and the institutional appearance of the planned center, Pitkin said.

"What we have here is not a transition. This is an all-out assault on the very edge of the campus," said one resident.

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