But What Will the Neighbors Think?

Two deals show progress at building ties with community, but trust still slow to develop

After three years of discussions culminating in a marathon of late-night negotiating sessions, Lawrence Adkins was tired—but not too tired to stand with a group of other residents of the Riverside neighborhood and applaud.

On the night of October 27, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to approve a watershed agreement with Harvard that laid the groundwork for the University’s development of an area where town-gown tensions stretched back for decades.

“We’ve got something to feel good about today. We have struck the best deal possible,” said Adkins, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, who added that he felt positive “even though I’ve been here since 8 a.m...and I’m sure I look like it.”

Less than two months later, a group of residents from another Cambridge neighborhood would applaud, when the Agassiz Neighborhood Council overwhelmingly voted in favor of a 25-year agreement with the University which will allow Harvard to expand its law and science facilities in exchange for millions of dollars worth of benefits to the community.

These two deals came in neighborhoods that have had different historical relations with Harvard and different areas of primary concern for the residents, but they both represented major victories for the University’s community relations staff, led by Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone, who has garnered praise from city officials since his arrival in Nov. 2001 for creating stronger ties with Cambridge.


Still, the University has a long way to go to earn the trust of many Cantabrigians, who say they are holding back on their praise of the agreements until they see Harvard live up to its end of the bargain.

“I think people are very nervous about whether it’s actually going to come to be,” says Riverside resident Phyllis Baumann of the agreement in her neighborhood. “There’s enough distrust out there and there’s enough history out there that members of the community won’t believe it until they see it.”

As Harvard seeks to expand into Allston and build ties with its Boston neighbors who will bear the brunt of the University’s future development, the two agreements reached this past year in Cambridge provide not only models of successful negotiation, but also a warning of the potential difficulty of winning a community’s trust.


Last August, 50 members of the Riverside neighborhood told their elected officials that Harvard was encroaching on their space and had to be stopped.

In three hours of testimony, the residents urged the city council’s Ordinance Committee to support a development plan for the neighborhood that would sharply limit Harvard’s ability to build on its property.

“It’s time for Harvard to compromise and stop their predatory ways,” said Cob Carlson, the first signer of the rezoning petition that bore his name and had substantial support in the neighborhood.

This type of anti-Harvard sentiment was not new in Riverside, a working-class community along the Charles River, where residents feel they were pushed aside to make way for some of Harvard’s tallest and most hated buildings, including the enormous concrete Peabody Terrace and Mather Tower.

In spring 1970, about 350 Riverside residents marched to Harvard Yard during Commencement weekend, and some of them jumped onto the stage during the ceremony to protest Harvard’s development in their area.

Three decades later, in fall 2000, Riverside activists obtained a building moratorium from the city council to halt Harvard’s plans for an art museum on a property along Memorial Drive.