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Zoning Board Delays Campus Center Plans a Second Time

Harvard is facing its first significant roadblock in its effort to renovate the Smith Campus Center.

At a second hearing before the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal on Thursday, Harvard’s plans for renovating the 10-story building were once again delayed, with no date set for continuing the case. If approved then, Thursday’s hearing would have marked the final step before the University began construction on the building, formerly known as the Holyoke Center, at 1350 Massachusetts Ave.

Smith Campus Center Front
A preliminary rendering of the renovated Smith Campus Center shows a remodeled front facade, where restaurant Au Bon Pain is currently located.

Faced with complaints from Cambridge residents, the board on Thursday instructed Harvard officials to rethink some of the building plans to secure more public support for the changes. Members of the Board of Zoning Appeal gave Harvard’s planners and architects no specific instruction on how to improve the plans, and unlike they did at an earlier hearing in June, they set no date to take up the plans again.

Public outcry “is happening because traditionally, people have too much of the decision baked before they go the general public,” Cambridge City Councillor Nadeem Mazen said at the meeting.

The general plans for renovating the space currently include a redesign of the building’s first, second, and 10th floors and the construction of new meeting and common spaces to create what administrators envision as a central campus venue to serve students, faculty, and the general public. The plans also call for a reconstruction of the building’s front facade, currently home to restaurant Au Bon Pain, and changes to both the indoor and outdoor dining areas, including added seating.

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Originally, the campus center was slated to first undergo construction in spring 2016 and open in 2018. According to University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke, Harvard has not altered its construction timeline, despite the two delays from the Board of Zoning Appeal.

In June, Cambridge residents criticized plans for the campus center, intended for use as a public space, arguing that it would be uninviting and exclusive to Harvard affiliates only. At Thursday’s hearing, however, representatives from Harvard presented an updated plan before the board, including added signage clarifying intent for public use.

Other updates to the University’s plans included a written commitment to preserving the chess tables in Forbes Plaza, the area at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Dunster Street. Harvard’s architects and planners also included provisions for additional outdoor seating in that plaza.

But those changes were not enough to assuage residents’ concerns about the proposed renovations. People in opposition to the plans said they thought Harvard’s structure was too grandiose and encroaching on Forbes Plaza, calling the proposed building a “Harvard theme park” and “Taj Mahal”-like structure.

“Harvard is a bureaucracy that seems to want to get bigger and stronger,” said Stephen Helfer, a Cambridge resident and former Harvard Library employee. He added that the campus center’s plans are an “institutional encroachment on public space.”

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalincunningham@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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