Harvard Tunnel Proposal Faces Its Final Hurdle

Neighbors voice opposition to

The fight over Harvard’s planned government center has moved underground.

For years, Harvard and Cambridge residents have struggled over an elaborate and expensive new facility that would consolidate the Department of Government and a dozen related academic centers.

The battle has centered around the size and shape of two new office and classroom buildings that Harvard hopes will one day comprise the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), planned to sit on the northeastern section of campus.

The center gradually seemed to be nearing reality over the past four years as municipal authorities discussed, tweaked and eventually approved nearly every component of CGIS. As late as this winter, the University still had plans to break ground on the center next month.

But over the past several weeks, the battleground has shifted and the struggle intensified. Now, attention is focused below ground on a tunnel that would connect the center’s two main buildings on either side of the busy Cambridge Street.

Gaining permission to dig the tunnel represents the final barrier to completion of the government center. And Harvard officials insist the tunnel is crucial to the project’s going forward.

But Harvard faces intense opposition from neighborhood residents who call the tunnel intrusive. They say that digging the underground passageway—which would take two years to complete—would be a long and noisy ordeal.

Tonight, for the first time, the Cambridge Planning Board will debate the merits of the tunnel. They will eventually recommend to the City Council whether or not Cambridge should grant Harvard permission to dig under a city street. Even if the board recommends granting such permission, Harvard’s tunnel plan will have to overcome the stiff opposition of city councillors, who have final say on the matter.

For Harvard, the tunnel has become the project’s Achilles heel. For city residents, it represents their last stand against CGIS.

Politics and Planning

The plan itself is straightforward enough. To build CGIS according to current plans, the University would demolish two existing Harvard buildings and erect new terra cotta and glass structures in their places. A tunnel would cut across Cambridge St. to connect the buildings’ basements.

But as the tunnel issue has become bogged down in lengthy and repeated hearings, the debate has centered as much on city politics as on city planning.

For their part, Harvard officials contend that the tunnel holds benefits not only for the Faculty and students, who will be able to move between the buildings without ever stepping outside, but also for those who live nearby. Traffic will flow more freely without students and Faculty trekking across the street, they argue.

In addition, they argue that the tunnel means only one building has to have a loading dock, which frees up green space around the other cuilding.

“I’m at a loss to understand the objections,” wrote Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles in an e-mail. “If I were a neighbor, I’d be petitioning Harvard please to build a tunnel and thus improve my neighborhood.”