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Agassiz Residents Approve Deal With Harvard

Neighbors give green light to University expansion in North Yard area

By Jessica R. Rubin-wills, Crimson Staff Writer

Residents of the neighborhood north of Harvard Yard voted by a wide margin on Tuesday to support a deal which will allow the University to carry out 1.6 million square feet of construction in the area over the next quarter-century.

Under the pact—which neighborhood representatives and University officials will likely sign in January—Harvard will provide millions of dollars worth of benefits to the Agassiz neighborhood and the city of Cambridge.

But both sides say that the main benefit of the deal is the peace of mind a 25-year deal provides.

Agassiz is home to the Law School, the Divinity School and the science departments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)—all of which are pressed for space and looking to expand.

The deal-making process, which consisted of a full year of negotiations periodically re-affirmed by neighborhood-wide votes, stands in sharp contrast to Harvard’s traditionally fractious relationship with abutting neighborhoods.

About 20 residents turned out for Tuesday’s vote—less than half the number that voted last December to authorize a neighborhood delegation to go to the table with Harvard.

Including absentee ballots, the final vote was 59 residents in favor of the deal, four opposed and four abstaining, according to William Bloomstein, one of the four representatives from the Agassiz Committee on the Impacts of Development (ACID) that negotiated the deal with Harvard.

“I think it was a very strong vote of support for the good work of the neighborhood over the course of more than a year,” said Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power. “I think it bodes well for the relationship that we’re trying to grow through this agreement.”

The deal lacks details on what the University will build and when—and precisely what amenities the neighborhood will get in return.

Under the terms of the agreement, University officials and neighborhood representatives will meet in a working group to review specific building projects as they come up and to negotiate benefits to go with each one.

Some residents at Tuesday’s meeting raised questions about how many votes would be necessary to make the deal official.

Bloomstein said at the meeting he was “disappointed” that more people did not show up to vote. He said he was hoping for 80-100 votes.

According to Amy King, the community liaison of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council, a neighborhood e-mail list has about 130 subscribers.

But Ellen Friedman, another member of the ACID negotiating team, said the deal should not be delayed because people chose not to come.

“If people are not interested, there’s no way we can force them to be interested,” she said.

And ACID representative Joel Bard said he thought the low turn-out was a sign that people were satisfied with the agreement and felt any concerns had already been addressed at previous meetings.

“I take the decision of people not to come as a sign that they agree,” Bard said.

Power praised the ACID team for their efforts to involve the neighborhood, which ranged from conducting a survey to gauge the neighborhood’s priorities to holding several informal gatherings last month for residents to discuss a draft of the agreement.

Agassiz residents Tom Frank ’44 and his wife Kate Frank said after Tuesday’s meeting that they did not support the agreement because it was not specific enough on some points.

They said they would have liked to see more details on what Harvard will do to limit the negative impacts of construction, which range from dust to noise to vibrations.

“We think it was a good draft document but with some issues that we felt continue to need more work,” Kate Frank said.

She added that there were “a lot of good elements” in the deal and that she would have supported it if there had been more time to work out the specifics.

Power said she knew some had concerns about construction’s negative impacts, but said that it was difficult to put too many specifics into the deal.

“It’s impossible in six pages to anticipate every issue that will come up over the next 25 years,” she said. “The key thing is to establish a framework for continuing discussion, and that’s what the [agreement] accomplishes.”

Bloomstein emphasized that signing the deal next month will be a “symbolic moment” and that the important part was to establish communication between Harvard and the neighborhood.

“This is really an ongoing, evolving relationship,” he said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us to actually turn the spirit of the [agreement] into a reality. I really see this not as the end of a process but the beginning of a new process.”

On the Horizon

Though several of Harvard’s schools are interested in expansion, FAS is first in line to develop in Agassiz, with three science buildings totalling 670,350 square feet in various stages of planning.

The negotiating team has already developed an agreement covering these three projects.

Under the agreement, the University will sponsor traffic control measures at two busy intersections in the neighborhood, provide landscaping along the edge of its campus and donate $50,000 for planting trees in the neighborhood.

In addition, Harvard will donate $1 million to a city-wide Youth, Culture, and Recreation fund and establish a new science partnership with the Cambridge Public Schools at an estimated cost of $1.45 million.

The community will receive these benefits in specific stages tied to the approval of permits and the completion of each project.

At Tuesday’s meeting, neighbors received a draft memo outlining Harvard’s plans to minimize the negative construction impacts FAS projects will have on the neighborhood.

The plan provides for a hotline for residents to call with concerns, designates a construction mitigation manager to respond to complaints and calls for measures to limit noise, dust, vibrations and truck traffic.

Bloomstein said at Tuesday’s meeting that the memo represents a draft that will be fleshed out more in the future. He said the ACID negotiators had rejected three previous drafts that he called “unacceptable.”

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

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