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Development plans for Harvard’s properties in the Riverside community of Cambridge are up in the air yet again—this time literally. Tonight or next Monday, the Cambridge City Council will vote on the Carlson Petition, a rezoning petition pushed for by residents of Riverside that would restrict Harvard development to buildings of 24 feet or less on a highly-contested Riverside site. The current height limit is 120 feet.
The restrictions would apply to the Mahoney Site on Memorial Drive, the spot on which Harvard had hoped to build a modern art museum last year; the plan was squashed by resident opposition.
In the wake of the museum’s rejection, the University has reoriented its vision for these two sites—planning the development of multi-story residential apartment buildings for graduate and Faculty housing. The resident’s Carlson petition would severely limit such development.
As suggested by one member of the city Planning Board, a board appointed by the City Manager that approves building projects, the Carlson Petition’s 24-foot clause is punitive. Such a severe restriction would also create a lose-lose situation for Harvard and residents of Riverside.
Cambridge is plagued by an overheated rental market due to the paucity of housing construction and the high demand for housing close to jobs and to Harvard. New mid-rise graduate student residential housing would remove students from the rental market, relieving pressure on rents for the rest of the community. A height limit as low as 24 feet, however, would lead to unnecessary sprawl and perpetuate high rents in the area.
With city council elections two weeks from tomorrow, the neighbors may have undue influence on the councillors—all of whom are running for reelection. But the Council would serve the whole city best by rejecting the Carlson Petition and accepting the more moderate plan presented by the planning board or by brokering a compromise plan with Harvard over the next few days.
The University is working on a plan for graduate student housing while granting concessions including the construction of new low-income housing and space for a public park. An early version of the plan was disliked by residents, but Harvard’s vision is a sound basis for an eventual compromise. Such an agreement should also require Harvard be reasonable in the design of new housing. Mather House and Peabody Terrace, with their imposing grey concrete exteriors, are two legitimate reasons for Harvard’s neighbors to resent the University. Area residents and the city council deserve an opportunity to critique new designs to insure that no more monstrosities join their neighborhood.
As demand for housing grows, Cambridge is best served by allowing the construction of low-density houses and high-density, mid-rise apartment buildings. Tonight, city councillors can insure that the city gets both.
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