Neighbors Tired of Living in Harvard’s Shadow

Historic tensions could lead Cambridge City Council to pass stringent restrictions

The sign in front of Riverside resident Cob Carlson’s house says it all: “No Harvard buildings here. Save our neighborhood.”Carlson’s home is located next to Mahoney’s Garden Center on Memorial Drive, a site that has been at the epicenter of one of Harvard’s biggest fights with the city of Cambridge.

Carlson’s name has become a synonym for the activist-endorsed development plan for the neighborhood—a plan that aims to strictly regulate the height and density of future Harvard buildings and make the statements emblazoned on Carlson’s sign a reality.

The Cambridge City Council has only two opportunities—tonight and next Monday—to vote on the so-called Carlson petition and the more moderate zoning plan submitted by the planning board or to cobble together a compromise.

With all of the city councillors up for re-election on Nov. 4, residents of the traditionally working class neighborhood along the Charles River are demanding that the council protect their interests and limit Harvard’s growth.

“I think the way the councillors handle this issue will either draw the community to support their re-election or cause them to work hard to dethrone those who have not been sensitive to the community,” says Alan Joslin, a member of the Kerry Corner Improvement Association, a group representing the city blocks nearest Mather House.

Council members and Harvard officials have been meeting behind closed doors to try to hammer out a last-minute compromise—although no one is sure when that last minute will be.

Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87, who has been at the forefront of compromise efforts, says the vote will probably happen next Monday. But resident Carol Bankerd says several city council members have told her they expect the rezoning to be on tonight’s agenda.

Although local activists say they hope a compromise between Harvard and the neighborhood can be reached, several say they think the Carlson petition will have enough votes on the council to pass if the negotiations fall through.

“I think that all parties involved believe that a negotiated deal will be in everyone’s best interest, and so I sincerely hope that will happen rather than having to pass the Carlson petition,” says Alec Wysoker ’84. “But if the negotiated solution doesn’t happen, then I think the Carlson petition will be passed.”

Through the more than three years that Harvard and Riverside have been battling over the University’s right to build, the debate has often centered on Harvard’s notorious history of development in Riverside—a history that has included buying out small houses to build large, unpopular buildings like Mather Tower and Peabody Terrace.

“This is obviously one of our more difficult community challenges,” says Harvard’s Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone. “That’s the biggest challenge, overcoming the gravity of negative history.”

After three years of discussion and several months of negotiation, history still hangs in the forefront of many minds—and Harvard’s ability to develop a handful of its remaining Cambridge sites still hangs in the balance.

Crunch Time

The Mahoney’s site on Memorial Drive is a site that has “eluded resolution for three decades,” says Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power.

In 2000—the beginning of the most recent incarnation of the old battle—Harvard proposed a modern art museum for the site. Neighborhood activists, strongly opposed to the proposal, took their case to the city council and fought for and won a moratorium on all building in Riverside.

At the time, the neighborhood had extremely permissive zoning that allowed for buildings of up to 120 feet.