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Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

October 16, 2008

As a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., Fred Meyer recalls some of the more bitter battles locals have had with nearby colleges. On one occasion years ago, residents who were displeased with Harvard University’s expansion protested with signs that read “You can’t borrow a cup of sugar from a university.”

“Although amusing, my reaction to that [sign] was that it was a cheap shot, meaning true but unfair,” said Meyer, who has been living in the Agassiz neighborhood near Harvard and Lesley University since 1959.

Meyer, a realtor, says he’s a believer in building constructive relationships with his college neighbors – and he cites a recent collaboration with Lesley as an example. Rather than trying to push through a building project the university wanted, Lesley officials asked Meyer and six other neighbors to offer up their own suggestions on the appearance and even the size of a new dormitory.

As the Boston Globe recently reported, the partnership marked a departure from what have sometimes been contentious negotiations between residents and Boston College, Northeastern University and Harvard. Far from stifling the project, however, the neighborhood committee approach ended with Lesley getting support for a larger project that included two buildings, instead of the one building initially proposed.

“I think the lesson is if you’re a university planner is talk to your neighbors early and often,” Meyer said. “Don’t wait; get them involved in the process. Tell them what your needs are, and listen to what their needs are … and you may get more than you dreamed from the neighbors.”

In February, Lesley officials drew up a plan for a five-story building that would house about 80 students. But in order to accommodate the neighbors’ desire to shield a parking lot from public view and to include retail space on the first floor, the project grew to two buildings that will serve 98 students. That required changes in zoning, and neighbors actually petitioned city officials to make that happen.

Consensus Still Elusive

The new buildings at Lesley, which should be completed in September of 2009, are located in an area of Cambridge that locals describe as “funky.” Small businesses and restaurants are within walking distance of the Victorian-style homes that dot the area, which hosts an eclectic mix of students and professionals.

Photo: Lesley University

Cambridge residents urged Lesley University to include retail space on the first floor of one of its new dormitories, seen in this rendering.

 

Lesley officials view the area’s charm as one of the draws of the university itself, so they were ultimately in agreement that new construction should reflect the feel of the existing neighborhood. Whether they met that goal is a matter of some disagreement, but members of the “Neighborhood Working Group” say they respect Lesley for at least trying to build consensus.

Charlie Christopher, co-owner of the Cambridge Common restaurant and bar on Massachusetts Avenue, said he was pleased to be included in the process. Even so, Christopher was disappointed with the design of the larger, more modern building that will soon be erected right next to his restaurant. Instead of giving a nod to the local architecture, Lesley went forward with a building that looks like it could house an “insurance agency in south Miami,” he said.

But Christopher said he had a favorable view of the Lesley officials and other committee members who worked with him on the project.

“I really find these people to be unbelievable to deal with,” Christopher said. “That doesn’t mean I like this building. This building is a monstrosity.”

But others favored the more modern look, saying that it strikes the right balance when paired with the second structure, which has a Victorian feel.

“The way that certainly a number of us looked at it was aesthetics is something you’re never going to get complete agreement on,” said Carol Weinhaus, a member of the neighborhood group.

The disagreements about appearance between members made this project a challenging job for Simeon Bruner, the architect. Bill Doncaster, Lesley’s director of community relations, recalls that Bruner was often asked to accommodate competing -- or even contradictory -- requests.

“It was a running joke: ‘Make it more vertical but horizontal, taller but shorter,’” Doncaster said.

Lesley Plans More Expansion

If Lesley University has built up some goodwill with community members, it will soon come in handy. The new dormitories mark the first ground-up construction the university has had in more than 30 years, but a period of growth is now underway. The university plans to move the Boston Art Institute, which merged with Lesley in 1998, from Boston to Cambridge. That project promises to be a major undertaking, involving – among other things – potentially moving a historic church Lesley bought years ago.

Marylou Batt, vice president for administration at Lesley, said she doubts neighbors will be actively involved in sketching plans for the Art Institute as they were with the dormitory. That said, Lesley plans to continue to follow a model of community involvement, and may now have more luck convincing residents that the university doesn’t have a hidden agenda, Batt said.

“I feel like we have developed and have very good relationships with the community, and I think they’ve learned to trust us,” she said. “When we say we don’t know [exact plans for the art institute construction], we really mean we don’t know. It’s not like we’ve got a secret plan sitting off someplace.”

Harvard Works to Obscure Eyesore

Even when universities seek buy-in for projects in the greater Boston area, the results aren’t always pretty. As Harvard Magazine

Photo: Harvard University

Harvard University went to great lengths to improve the appearance of one of its dormitories, moving two Victorian style houses nearby to partially obscure it from view.

reported year, Harvard University’s expansion has been the source of furor in times past. Kathleen Born, an architect quoted in the magazine, noted that Harvard’s peculiar space within Boston culture may have something to do with its past difficulties.

“Harvard is up against pressures an ordinary developer doesn’t face,” Born told the magazine. “First, it’s here to stay. Every project is one of a series, and the repercussions from any given project last a long time. Second, there’s a perception that it’s a wealthy liberal institution and everything it does should benefit the public good. And third, pretty much everyone in the Boston area has a connection with Harvard. They went there, or didn’t get in, or worked there, or knew someone who was fired. It’s personal. There’s no one who doesn’t have an attitude about Harvard.”

In Cambridge, attitudes about Harvard’s North Hall are particularly passionate. The law school dormitory, which was formerly a Holiday Inn, was once regarded as a terrible eyesore by members of the Agassiz neighborhood, some of whom served on the Lesley University neighborhood committee. But Harvard officials took steps a last year to change perceptions of North Hall, in part by tearing pieces of it down.

“There were in fact a range of opinions about the value of North Hall, with most people feeling it was not a well-loved building,” said Mary Power, Harvard’s chief of community relations and executive director of community initiatives. “There was at least one voice in the community that thought it was a valued example of 1960’s architecture, but I think he was in the minority.”

There’s still not a lot of love for North Hall, but neighbors say they’re pleased with the changes. In addition to partial demolition, Harvard also took the extraordinary step of moving two Victorian-style structures from several blocks away, and placing them around North Hall to partially obscure it from public view. The memory of the house moves, which area residents awoke early in the morning to watch take place, still sticks with Carol Weinhaus.

“It was like a holiday,” she said. “It was an extraordinary event. It was one of those urban events that doesn’t happen, except for once in a lifetime.”

 

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