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Riverside Rezoning Council Vote Looms

By Jessica R. Rubin-willis, Crimson Staff Writer

After postponing a decision on Friday, the Cambridge City Council will most likely vote tonight on a compromise rezoning plan in Riverside that will set the tone for Harvard’s future development of the neighborhood.

City councillors adjourned a special meeting on Friday after less than five minutes, when city councillors and local residents said they needed more time to discuss a proposed agreement with the University before it came to a vote.

Neighborhood activists said that they only had one night before Friday’s meeting to look at a draft of an agreement reached by the city and Harvard officials, which represents an attempt to end more than three years of contentious battles between Harvard and Riverside residents over the University’s plans for expansion in the neighborhood.

The plan is a compromise between a proposal that Harvard unveiled last month for the development of its property along the Charles River and a neighborhood-developed rezoning petition that would greatly reduce the maximum building heights permitted on several plots of University-owned land.

Mayor Michael A. Sullivan told the council on Friday that he hoped they would be able to adopt the agreement this week, adding that it would represent “landmark action on behalf of this body and this community.”

The neighbors met with several councillors on Friday afternoon to discuss the plan and compile a list of concerns to submit to the University.

Representatives of both sides expressed hope over the weekend that contentious points could be hammered out and the legal language of the zoning petition refined in time for a vote at tonight’s city council meeting.

The neighborhood activists’ original zoning proposal—known as the Carlson petition—expires tomorrow night, so the council is facing a tight deadline for taking action. Sullivan said the council will hold a special meeting tomorrow morning if a decision is not reached tonight.

“We’re hoping to get some positive responses back from Harvard this weekend,” Riverside resident Alan Joslin told The Crimson on Saturday. “If they’re along the lines of what we think is reasonable and appropriate, then we’d enjoy standing up at the council meeting [tonight] and endorsing the negotiated agreement.”

The agreement between Harvard and the city would include a new zoning plan for the area as well as a “letter of commitment” in which the University would agree to concessions for the neighborhood, including providing affordable housing for city residents and donating space for public parks, in return for more generous limits on the heights it can build on its property.

Resident Alec Wysoker ’84 indicated that the two sides had reached a compromise on one of the most contentious Harvard-owned sites, the plot on Memorial Drive currently occupied by Mahoney’s Garden Center. The University has said it wants to construct graduate student housing on the site.

Wysoker said the agreement for the Mahoney’s site would include a 35-foot building along the edge of the residential neighborhood that would increase to 65 feet closer to the river. The University would also build several three-story buildings along Western Avenue and reserve part of the space for a park.

“We’re not thrilled with it but we feel like we’re willing to live with it for the most part,” said Wysoker, who added that negotiations would still continue over the Mahoney’s site.

An area that presents more of a problem to residents is a site on the corner of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive, the current location of Harvard’s steam power plant. Wysoker said the current proposal allows heights of 85 feet on part of the site, and the neighborhood would like to reduce this height.

Another site where negotiations are ongoing is Kerry Corner, the city blocks near Mather House where Harvard hopes to build housing for faculty and students.

Joslin, a resident of Kerry Corner, said the agreement sets height limits of 35 feet everywhere except for a plot on Cowperthwaite Street, where the height would rise to 45 to 55 feet. According to Joslin, residents are willing to allow a taller building on that site because it is an ideal location for a dorm, but they hope the agreement will include more stringent restrictions on the size of buildings on other neighborhood plots.

“We were worried about dorms being built in areas they shouldn’t be built,” Joslin said, citing an area on Grant Street and another area on Athens Terrace as examples.

Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power said this weekend that she could not discuss specific aspects of the agreement because the University viewed the deal as a “package of assurances and commitments.”

“There has been tremendous effort by all to work towards a resolution,” she said.

Councillor David P. Maher, who has been at the forefront of the negotiating efforts, said after Friday’s abbreviated meeting that he expected the agreement to be ready for a vote today.

“On Monday we will have a finished, very creative piece of zoning,” he said. He added that the letter of commitment would be available to the public today.

Wysoker said there were still “substantive differences” between Harvard and the neighborhood, especially over the Kerry Corner and Western Avenue sites.

“If Harvard is going to stick to their guns on that, then the deal may fall apart,” Wysoker said. “I hope it doesn’t, but I think that they need to reduce the size of their program a little bit....The bottom line for me is that Harvard will be getting a significant amount of development out of this deal and I would hope that they would allow for a little flexibility in order to get it done.”

Joslin said he felt the two sides were not very far apart but that both the residents and the University wanted to make sure all the details were specified in writing.

“The list we gave back was relatively small and items that we don’t think are deal-breakers,” he said. “They would be if we lost them, but I can’t imagine they’re deal-breakers for Harvard, so I’m relatively optimistic.”

“If it all goes through and meets all the concerns of Harvard and the community, then there are large parts of the process which are a wonderful precedent for future negotiations on similar areas around Cambridge,” he added. “We hope that this will serve as a shining model for how the University and the community and the council can work together.”

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at rubinwil@fas.harvard.edu.

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