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With the battle over rezoning in Riverside—a fight centered around the University’s ability to build in the neighborhood along the Charles—entering its final weeks, Harvard representatives unveiled new, scaled-down plans for University-owned sites last night.
But the city council, which must vote on new zoning before an Oct. 28 deadline, attacked the designs as an audience of Riverside neighbors scoffed and snorted.
Riverside residents, often citing their bitter hatred of Harvard’s Peabody Terrace and Mather Tower, have fought the University’s plans to build for years.
More than three years ago, when Harvard introduced a plan to build a modern art museum on the Memorial Drive plot currently home to Mahoney’s Garden Center, the residents objected vehemently. They created a study committee to rezone the entire neighborhood—with a particular eye towards a few Harvard-owned plots.
The neighbors’ plan, commonly known as the Carlson petition, would cut the maximum allowed height on the Mahoney’s plot, for example, from 120’ to 24’.
But the planning board, the city-appointed group of architects and planners that looks at all zoning proposals, called the Carlson petition “punitive” and submitted a petition that allowed for taller buildings and more negotiation.
Now both plans sit on the city council’s agenda and will expire on Oct. 28—just one week before election day.
Meanwhile, last summer the University ditched the art museum plan, offering up an alternative idea to build graduate student housing on the site instead—a proposal that the neighbors have also largely rejected.
The plan Harvard showed last night—including more open space and less dense buildings, as well as underground parking—had been drastically changed.
Arguing that by building more housing for graduate students, the University will take pressure off the tight Cambridge housing market, Harvard officials also unveiled plans for graduate student housing on University-owned sites deeper in the residential neighborhood.
The proposals also included voluntary affordable housing rentals and—as a sort of peace offering—10 moderate-income houses for sale elsewhere in Cambridge.
But the changes were still not enough for at least six members of the city council, who took the opportunity after the University presented to lambaste the timing of the proposals, the cost of the parking, the shadows of the buildings and even the posters that the architects used.
The most common complaint was that Harvard, rather than making true progress in negotiations, was offering too little, too late.
“This is a weird dynamic tonight,” said Councillor Marjorie Decker, after Harvard made its presentation. “I feel like we’re discussing a whole new petition. This is sort of a Harvard petition.”
Several residents applauded.
There was no official public comment at the meeting. Harvard presented the proposal yesterday morning to several neighborhood groups, including the Riverside Study Committee, the Riverside Neighborhood Association and the Kerry Corner Improvement Association.
Lawrence Adkins, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, said that Harvard has not been specific enough in its designs. He said that he wanted to make it clear to Harvard that “if they ain’t got it on paper, they are not welcome.”
Several residents were in attendance at the Sullivan Chamber last night, sporting “I Crow for the Carlson Petition” stickers, and though not officially speaking, made their presence felt.
They made disapproving sounds when Tom Sieniewicz, architect for Chan Krieger & Associates and a Riverside resident himself, showed the three-dimensional map of the triple-decker 65’ buildings along Cowperthwaite Street, and were not much quieter about the proposal for the Mahoney’s site, despite the new amenities.
Several councillors agreed.
“In my view, it’s huge,” said Councillor Denise Simmons. “The feeling that it gives is that the river is walled off.”
She also added that it was late in the process to be discussing this.
“I want to say to Harvard: is that your final offer? Because this is not aesthetically palatable to me...Harvard is a member of a city and that city can only expand so much.”
Simmons, along with Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’71, Decker and Councillor Tim Toomey, made it clear that they supported the Carlson petition over anything Harvard had presented. Several of them also made the suggestion that Harvard discontinue development in Cambridge, and focus on construction in Allston.
Kathy A. Spiegelman, the University’s top planner, said that Harvard was not ready to develop in Boston and needed housing in Cambridge both to attract graduate students and to alleviate pressure on the Cambridge market.
Some of the councillors, in particular councillors Brian Murphy ’86-’87 and David P. Maher, who co-chair the ordinance committee—which typically hammers out compromises on zoning and other legislation—were not as quick to dismiss Harvard’s proposals.
After the meeting, Murphy said that he didn’t think that the proposal came too late, and some of the changes were worth a hard look.
“I don’t feel that this is too late,” he said. “Had we brought something sooner, it would not have been as different from the March proposal...I think we have enough to get this resolved.”
He also expressed concern that without a compromise on a specific design, it will be a lose-lose situation.
In the end, though, the debate bounced back to ownership of the Charles—with Reeves quoting G. Pebble Gifford, a leader of the Harvard Square Defense Fund.
“Rome has the Tiber, Paris has the Seine, and they don’t build high-rises, so why should we allow them on the Charles?” Reeves said.
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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