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Splintered Partnership: Harvard, City Spar Publicly

By Robert K. Silverman, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard and Cambridge have grown up together.

For 364 years, they have shared the same patch of land by the Charles, cooperating to become the foremost university and the foremost university town in the world.

Harvard is Cambridge's largest landholder, wealthiest resident and biggest tourist draw. Cambridge provides an eclectic, exciting and safe environment for America's oldest university.

The 364-year partnership--like any, filled with ups and downs--has served both the University and Cambridge well.

But now, at the dawn of a new millennium, the symbiotic relationship between Harvard and its home city has deteriorated to the point of public acrimony.

Despite attempts by the University to smooth over the rough spots, the tone of interaction between the two has descended to its worst levels in years, and each side blames the other.

The University cites aggressive and vocal statements by new members of the City Council and the inexperience of the new mayor, Anthony D. Galluccio.

The city claims Harvard has not fulfilled its civic obligations and that its plans for development overlook the concerns of residents.

Both sides say that open and effective communication is nearly impossible because of the other's decentralized and fragmented administration.

"Harvard would like to be perceived as a social partner but [administrators] don't want to have their hands tied in any way," Galluccio says. "I don't think they've listened or really understood the advantages of developing a partnership with the city."

Paul S. Grogan, Harvard's vice president for government, public and community affairs, counters that the structure of city government is responsible for the strained relationship.

"If it is impossible for the University to be able to get things done, from our point of view [that represents] a strain in town-gown relations," he says.

Over the past 18 months, the University has embarked on a series of steps to try to improve relations between Harvard and Cambridge.

In January 1999, University President Neil L. Rudenstine appointed Grogan to his current post, shifting Harvard's community relations focus from federal matters to local ones. Harvard has conducted polls and published reports emphasizing Harvard's positive economic and social contributions. Last November, the University announced a $20 million affordable housing initiative for Cambridge and Boston.

But at the same time, Harvard's continuing attempts at development have created much of the tension. Proposals to build the Knafel Center for Government and International Studies on Cambridge Street and a modern art museum on the banks of the Charles have drawn fierce criticism from Cambridge residents and city councillors.

The current City Council--which includes three new members--has adopted an explicit anti-Harvard stance, blasting the University for its real estate development and for its failure to implement a living wage of $10.25 per hour for all Harvard employees.

While leaders of both Harvard and Cambridge say they are committed to improving the relationship, communication between the two has degenerated into finger pointing and posturing, with each side blaming the other for the poor state of affairs.

No One in Charge

Harvard and Cambridge both charge that the other's decision-making process is decentralized and fragmented, making negotiations almost impossible.

Cambridge leaders criticize the University's "every tub on its own bottom" philosophy, in which each school and administrative department retains a great deal of autonomy.

They say that this decentralized system allows Harvard to evade responsibility and to avoid answering difficult questions.

"We wouldn't know who to speak to at Harvard and that's the most frustrating thing," says Kenneth E. Reeves '72, a member of the council. "No one is responsible and no one is in charge."

"The University has insulated itself from accountability from outside sources with its decentralized bureaucracy," Galluccio says.

But Grogan says it is Cambridge's form of government, not the University's, that is responsible for the poor relations.

"I think things are at a difficult point because of the inability of the government to make decisions," he says. "The city can't grind to a halt, the University can't grind to a halt. There are things the University has to do--renew its physical plant and invest in itself."

Cambridge is governed by a city council with nine members, each of whom is elected by a proportional voting system every two years. The mayor does not serve as a chief executive, functioning only as the chair of the council and the School Committee. An appointed city manager controls most of the day-to-day operations of the city.

The absence of a single strong executive, Grogan says, allows small groups of citizens to wield considerable power, especially during periods of economic upswing, when most residents are content and less likely to participate in the political process.

"This is a climate in which the government is very fragmented," he says. "People are not participating. That leaves the field to a very small group of people."

Grogan points to the existence of "professional meeting goers"--residents who attend every public municipal meeting and are able to hold great sway over city government and University development.

"They are people who enjoy being out at a meeting on weeknights and occasionally torturing institutions like the University," he says. "The phenomenon you end up engaging in is negotiating with yourself. You make all these changes with respect to a different group, they're happy, they disappear, and then there's a new group."

Grogan says if University administrators were able to negotiate with one set of city officials, they would be able to accomplish more for both Harvard and the city.

"There isn't anyone who can deliver," he says. "[If] we could have reasonable assurance that we could move projects forward and not have them derailed by three disgruntled people, then we could do a lot more for [the city]. It would be more fruitful."

Building Tension

Much of the current anti-Harvard sentiment in the city derives from University building projects.

Harvard's expansion has always been contentious, and the University currently has two large-scale development projects on the table.

As a result, the University has increased its contact with city residents and the government in recent months, as it tries to win approval of both the Knafel Center and the art museum.

The interaction has not been positive for either Cambridge or the University.

City officials say Harvard misrepresents plans for expansion and does not listen to residents' concerns.

"Harvard in this period of its evolution has been extraordinarily dishonest and cavalier and callous in its development proposals," Reeves says. "The University has become more aggressive and less sensitive to the concerns of neighbors."

University administrators say they are frustrated that so little progress has been made.

Negotiations over the proposed Knafel Center have entered a fourth year, and the path towards construction remains long.

Plans must win approval from a series of neighborhood commissions and zoning boards, but the University has yet to gain a single permit.

Residents have attacked the plan--which would replace two existing University buildings on either side of the Cambridge Street near Quincy Street and dig an underground connecting tunnel--because of the proposed center's size and the increased traffic it would bring.

In response to neighborhood concerns, Harvard has already moved the site once and redesigned architectural plans twice, the latest draft presented within the past week.

The most recent redesign appears to have finally won favor with residents.

"It's an example of how a consultative process can lead to a mutually acceptable outcome," says Mary H. Power, Harvard's director of community relations.

But Grogan says not all Harvard development projects can follow the Knafel model--the process has been too long and too expensive.

"We're embarking on our second redesign and we don't have a single permit. It has cost an enormous amount of money," he says. "There has to be a better way."

Riverside Blues

While the Knafel Center project may finally be moving forward, debate over a proposed art museum by the Charles River has just begun.

The building, to be located on Memorial Drive just past Peabody Terrace, would replace Mahoney's Garden Center, a store popular with residents.

Harvard administrators have spoken with residents of the Riverside neighborhood, but city councillors say discussions have not gone well.

"I've never seen more ineptitude in conducting a neighborhood meeting," Reeves says. "I do see a very real possibility for a showdown in the Riverside neighborhood."

City officials say Harvard blindsided residents with the museum proposal and has made only half-hearted attempts to listen to neighborhood concerns.

Reeves calls Harvard's stance hypocritical, saying the University asks for community input but already has plans for the site.

"'What do neighbors want?' and 'Do you like this museum?' are two separate questions," he says.

Councillors say they want the property to benefit the city--Galluccio suggested Harvard develop affordable housing units on the site as a sign of its commitment to Cambridge.

Grogan says despite residents' concerns, ultimately authority for the property should lie with its owner--the University.

"'The community ought to determine what happens on that site'--that's kind of a novel thing to tell a private developer," he says.

Residents have unrealistic expectations, he says, for how much they are able to influence the process.

Harvard administrators seem mystified by opposition to the proposed museum--a low-lying, unobtrusive structure designed by noted architect Renzo Piano--which they say would benefit the community.

"The idea of a Renzo Piano building by the river, that seems to be a wonderful asset for the community," says Vice President for Administration Sally H. Zeckhauser, who is responsible for coordinating development with the Harvard Corporation.

On the Attack

Tensions between the city and University extend beyond straightforward issues of real estate expansion.

In recent months, some city councillors, led by new members Jim Braude and Marjorie C. Decker, have adopted a much more belligerent tone in calling for Harvard to implement a living wage on its campus.

The council enacted a living wage for all city employees in May 1999 and has passed a series of unanimous resolutions for Harvard to do the same.

In the past few months Braude and Decker have issued more forceful challenges, publicly stating they will not support Harvard's development projects unless the University enacts a living wage.

Last month, Decker also invited childhood friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Class of 1992, to speak at a living wage rally. The Academy Award-winning actors, both of whom grew up in Cambridge, attacked Harvard for failing to live up to its civic obligations.

"Within the Cambridge community, Harvard has long been viewed as some sort of amoral juggernaut, gobbling up real estate, intoxicated by its own power and thereby above the standards of simple human decency," Damon told the crowd of more than 400. "Their resistance to a living wage does nothing to counter this characterization."

At a rally held in April, both Braude and Decker explicitly linked Harvard's development plans with the campaign for a living wage.

"If Harvard wants to build a new building and comes to the City Council, all nine of us will say, 'Implement a living wage, and we'll talk,'" Braude said.

Other members of the council, including Galluccio, have shied away from Braude and Decker's more overt threats, but say they understand the aggressive stance of the new councillors.

"It's clear that members of the City Council are frustrated," says Councillor Kathleen L. Born. "Their threats are a symptom of that frustration."

"This is a new council and I think it's finding its way," she adds.

"This is an aggressive council," Galluccio says. "People expect things from the University."

Galluccio maintains that he is "not an anti-Harvard mayor," but he says he is not happy with the city's current relationship with the University.

"The real priority has been the endowment and fundraising and expansion, not social partnership," Galluccio says.

"I have to admit I've had concerns about attending graduation," he adds. "My message right now is that everything is not fine."

But University administrators universally condemn threats by city councillors to block Harvard development without the implementation of a living wage.

They say the University will never bow to that kind of pressure.

"It's never going to happen," Grogan says. "If you get asked to do something, that's one thing, but if you're ordered...That's just human nature."

Administrators say the council should not attempt to legislate internal Harvard policy--a matter over which it has no control.

"I'm not sure why city councillors would see it their business to set the University's wages," Zeckhauser says. "It's not their place to change wages--it seems to me an unusual thing to do."

Even Francis H. Duehay '55, a longtime former member of the City Council who served as mayor in 1998 and 1999, criticizes the councillors' statements, calling them "unwise" and "unproductive."

"Harvard is not going to be intimidated by threats," Duehay says. "It's kind of silly to threaten someone if you cannot follow through with the threat."

But Decker says the council is justified in attacking Harvard over an issue that members feel strongly about, even to the point of threats.

"It's not about whether we have direct jurisdiction--it's about whether the University wants to have open dialogue and a meaningful relationship with the city," she says. "When Harvard refuses to enter into a meaningful dialogue, our job is to do things to force the University to sit down."

The Man with the Plan

Grogan says he did not anticipate the debate over a living wage. He calls it a "setback" in his plans to improve relations between city and University.

He counters criticism over Harvard's decentralized administration by stating Harvard does have a single point person for community development--himself.

"They can come to me," he says.

Grogan has an extensive background in community organizing. Prior to coming to Harvard, he worked for a decade as the president and chief executive officer of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national non-profit organization dedicated to community development. Before that, he spent 13 years working in Boston city government.

His appointment last year served as a signal that Harvard was prepared to devote greater attention to community relations, rather than focusing solely on federal affairs.

Administrators at Harvard, including Rudenstine and Zeckhauser, universally praise Grogan as "wonderful," and laud his work with the community.

But Galluccio says Grogan does not have enough power to serve as Harvard's one representative to the city--he cannot decide to implement living wage or establish the amount of student housing Harvard needs in Cambridge.

"The University hasn't empowered someone like Paul for a leadership role," Galluccio says.

He dismisses the work of Grogan's assistants, who organize meetings with residents to pitch the University's development plans to the community. The sessions are held on weeknights and often extend for several hours, giving residents the opportunity to weigh in on Harvard's plans--often with quite harsh criticisms.

Galluccio says Grogan's assistants have no real power and function primarily to prevent the University from having to make real change.

"I feel sorry for the government and community affairs people on the front line," he says. "They're used as sacrificial lambs to insulate the University from outside concerns."

Accentuate the Positive

One of Grogan's major goals since entering office has been to publicize the positive impacts that Harvard has had on the community.

He says "a disconnect" exists in Cambridge, where residents are largely unaware of the benefits that Harvard provides to the community.

"There are a lot of amenities," he says. "[Harvard] is just an unusually nice thing to be around."

His office has conducted polls--which he says show that the University has an 85 percent favorability rating among residents--and published a series of reports highlighting the positive economic and community and role that Harvard plays in the metropolitan area.

Grogan calls the University's economic impact "staggering"--his office reports that Harvard spends almost $1 billion more per year in the Boston area than it takes in.

Grogan's major new initiative thus far as vice president is a $20 million investment in affordable housing, announced last November. The University plans to provide $10 million in low interest loans to both Boston and Cambridge to fund housing efforts--the top priority of Cambridge city councillors and residents.

This "extraordinary" commitment, Grogan says, represents a "down payment" to demonstrate the University's commitment to improving the community.

"We do take seriously our civic responsibility," he says.

Duehay praises the University's commitment to funding affordable housing.

"Outside of Cambridge, universities don't do this sort of thing," he says.

Duehay also credits the University as a positive force in the community, citing the economic impact of both Harvard and MIT.

"Both the universities add enormous luster to the city and it would be a completely different city without them," he says. "If not for Harvard and MIT, there would not have been the economic growth in the city."

Current city councillors are not as positive.

"We can say Harvard wouldn't be where Harvard is without Cambridge," Reeves says. "People choose not to go to New Haven because of the condition of the city."

Decker says any contributions Harvard makes to the local economy do not make up for their failings in other areas.

"Whatever they provide for this community will never excuse being a poor neighbor and a poor communicator," she says.

University administrators say Harvard represents an easy target for city councillors, whose term of office lasts for only two years.

Because Cambridge politics are so fragmented, they say, finding fault with Harvard provides an effective way to

unify constituents behind a single issue.

"Harvard can't escape the fact that it's often viewed as a 500-pound gorilla, and it becomes a lightening rod," Power says. "In a political setting, it makes the challenges of creating a constructive dialogue with neighborhood groups even more difficult."

In a proportional voting system, attacking Harvard can be a powerful political tool for councillors to employ, Zeckhauser says.

"They come up every two years and have to get a few number one votes," she says. "What can [voters] agree on? Harvard has made a few mistakes in the past year."

"It's something they can rely on," she adds.

Grogan says City Council meetings portray the University in an almost entirely negative light.

"The overall impression you'd get, you'd think that Harvard is a plague that had been visited upon the city," he says. "It's unfortunate that there's as much negative comment as there is, but it doesn't affect us."

"We're obviously a big issue," Grogan add. "We reek with symbolism."

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