Mending Fences--And Tunnels

The University’s expansion has made effective town-gown relations a valuable investment

Last fall, Harvard reached a deal with neighboring Watertown that guaranteed $3.8 million dollars per year to the city as a result of the University’s purchase of a 30-acre office complex. The neighborhood’s almost unanimously favorable reaction gave us hope that Harvard might be turning a corner in its heretofore clumsy community relations. But if the events of this year are any indication, Harvard—and its neighbors—still have a long way to go.

The Watertown negotiations were essential because the city stood to lose millions of dollars in tax revenue due to Harvard’s exempt status. The tax revenue generated by the parcel Harvard purchased accounted for almost five percent of Watertown’s entire budget—money the city had been counting on for library and school renovations among other projects. Shortly after Harvard bought the complex, Watertown children and their parents protested Harvard’s heartless action. In response to the negotiation’s outcome, those same parents cheered the University’s presence.

But Harvard’s magnanimity toward Watertown has complicated its relations with its other neighbors—a prospect Harvard predicted. Indeed, Cambridge city councillors have since called for a reassessment of the city’s losses due to Harvard’s tax exemptions—even though its thirteen-year-old agreement for payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) with Harvard will remain in effect until 2010. In Boston this spring, after Harvard acquired 91 acres of land in Allston from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino also called on Harvard to increase its PILOT payments. Before its recent purchase, Harvard held nine times as much land in Boston as in Watertown yet paid less than half the PILOT payments negotiated with Watertown.

Harvard’s other neighbors deserve a better deal: It is time for the University to substantially increase its PILOT payments. Voluntary renegotiation of the old PILOT agreement would show great generosity on Harvard’s part and represent a departure from narrowly self-interested policies of the past.

As the University’s administration will be quick to point out, Harvard pays other taxes and has done much in the way of bringing prestige and business to Cambridge. And in Boston, much of its holdings still remain on the tax-rolls. But PILOT payments are a good investment in positive relations with our neighbors. Recent fights over Harvard development—including, notably, Harvard’s January decision to give up trying to build a tunnel under Cambridge Street—demonstrate that both the school and the city lose when politics turn ugly.


The tunnel was intended to connect the two buildings of the new Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS). But because Harvard could not meet the demands of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association—which included a ten-year moratorium on future building—and because negotiations broke down, no agreement could be reached. Harvard’s decision to scrap the tunnel marked the culmination of six years of rancorous negotiations between the University and the city of Cambridge over the building’s design.

Negotiations failed, in part, because Cambridge residents conceived of the tunnel as a four-lane wide bargaining chip that it could use to leverage more concessions from the University’s coffers. But the tunnel served practical purposes for students and faculty, and the city of Cambridge could well have benefited from some of the negotiated proposals—if not the tunnel itself, which would have reduced some of the noise and bustle generated by busy academic centers. Increasing PILOT payments will demonstrate goodwill and help to mend fences in obvious need of repair.

Harvard’s relationship with Cambridge may still be decades from healing, but its relationship with Boston concerning Allston development is just beginning. How well the University listens to community concerns and addresses the welfare of residents will lay long-lasting foundations for better community relations in the future. Allston represents such great hope because Harvard for once has the potential to work with its neighbors for better land-use development. Furthermore, the creation of an interdisciplinary professional schools campus on the Allston side of the river would free up space on the Cambridge side—easing some of the burdens of Harvard sprawl on Cambridge residents.

The CGIS tunnel may be dead, but its ghost lives on. Hopefully it will haunt Harvard’s presence in Allston long enough to ensure that the many varied mistakes of the past are not forgotten.