Neighbors poke at Arboretum plans

December 1, 2006
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Harvard responds
ARBORTEUM—Some local residents fear Harvard University’s recent proposal to build a Research and Administration facility on the Weld Hill section of Arnold Arboretum sets a dangerous stage for future development and cuts to the amount of green space. A legal guarantee barring future development could ease their worries, they say. A permanent restriction would be unwise, said a Harvard spokesperson.

Those and other concerns expressed by about 30 community members at a pubic comment meeting, hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Nov. 14 at the Hunnewell Building at the arboretum, have set the need for a second public meeting, according to a BRA spokesperson.

“It is clear some work still needs to be done,” said BRA project manager Gerald Autler.

“Our major concern is the long term,” said Roslindale resident Deb Beatty Mel.

Harvard officials say construction of a three-story, 45,000-square-foot building can help continue the arboretum’s institutional reputation and philanthropic model. The maintenance of 265 acres of open land is funded by the arboretum through the university. No tax dollars contribute to the arboretum, said a Harvard spokesperson.

“This particular project has to do with a very important piece of the arboretum’s mission–research and education,” said Kevin McCluskey of Harvard’s Office of Community Affairs. “The way [the arboretum] attracts funding is by maintaining the excellence of the arboretum. This project is advancing the arboretum’s mission.”

November’s meeting came in the middle of a 60-day comment period, a standard part of the legal process for any Institutional Master Plan (IMP). An IMP is an official document outlining proposed institutional expansion for the next decade. Meetings serve as a forum for public discussion among local government, the institution and residents about the project.

Last month Harvard filed its IMP to build a state-of-the-art botanical research facility. The facility would occupy a 26,000-square-foot blueprint in a 265-acre (over 10 million square feet) parcel of land.

Greenhouses, labs, meeting rooms and some administrative office space would occupy the three-story building that would be built into the side of the hill, tucked somewhat behind the cover of trees.

In addition, a clause was added stating the university would not develop anything else on the land for 50 years. At that time, any large changes would require another legal process mirroring the current one.

Community members praised attempts made by school officials and architects to design the building in a way that deferred to the landscape and continued dedication to providing a beautiful institution that served the community. Still, concerns lingered.

“This is the classic case of the little guy versus the big guy,” said Roslindale resident Scott Hoffman, who said he walks his dog through the arboretum almost every day. “Harvard makes it look like we want the building, when in fact it is they who are looking for the variance.”

“Harvard amasses a fortune being on tax-exempt land,” he said. “Their give-back is open space. There is nothing about this design that says this building has to be here. It offers us nothing. I feel like the vacuum cleaner salesman is here and has his foot in the door.”

The common thread running through the meeting was that if the university could guarantee that the building is the only development that would ever take place on Weld Hill, with some sort of permanent development restriction tied into the contract, the project would be accepted.

“If zoning is changed, for the next 50 years maybe all we will see is the research building,” said Beatty Mel. “But after 50 years there would be nothing stopping Harvard. If they keep expanding, it could destroy the character of the neighborhood itself.”

“We said at the beginning of this process three years ago that it was not feasible for us to place a permanent easement on our private property,” said McCluskey. “It sets a precedent that could severely inhibit the university’s ability to carry out the university’s [and the arboretum’s] mission many years down the road.”

“We’ve made unprecedented commitments in taking on restrictions others would not consider. They were not easy to come to,” he said. “It all takes place within the context of a productive relationship with the city and neighbors.”

The current plans for a research and administration building on the area better known to some as Puddingstone Hill or Prouty’s Hill are linked to, and are somewhat a response to, past community grievances.

Two years ago, community opposition caused an arboretum proposal for an 18,000-square-foot maintenance facility near its greenhouses and a 15,000-square-foot expansion of the Hunnewell Building at its main entrance to be pulled off the table.

“Modifications were needed,” said Autler. “The purpose of this meeting is for the people to meet the project manager… It is a session for comments and questions and to help you form written comments you can send to me.”

“I question the standing of the Arnold Arboretum to file the IMP on Harvard-owned land,” said Walter Michalik in a memo to the BRA, who was confused over whether the university contributes to the aboretum fund or not. “This bifurcation between Harvard and the arboretum is at once troubling and blurring to the point of obfuscation… My second concern speaks to a lingering sense of distrust over past performances and non-performances [Bussey Street, Dana Greenhouse].”

Michalik serves on the BRA advisory group for the re-zoning of Roslindale.

Michalik praised Harvard’s attempts at designing a “working landscape,” as an opportunity but otherwise rejected the IMP as filed.

Other neighbors questioned whether the building’s design and zoning needs allowed for easy future additions to the building that would impede green space as well as marginalize the community process. Further concerns addressed were teenagers partying on Weld Hill and leaving trash.

In the normal process, after the 60-day comment period, the BRA task force designated to this project would review comments and make a suggestion to the BRA board about the project based on an internal review of plans and community response. The board would then vote.

If the vote passed, the project would next be reviewed by the zoning commission and need the mayor’s signature before being finalized.

But clear community opposition at November’s meeting seemed to create the need for an extension of the comment period. Another public meeting will be held to talk about the comments once he sees them, Autler said. “My expectation is the comment period will be extended to that meeting.”

People present at the meeting did not want to wait. They wanted to take an unofficial vote to gauge community feelings.

“This is not a public hearing,” said Autler.

One audience member, in what appeared to be a scoff, asked if they could vote on taking a vote. More will be discussed at the next meeting.

“I can live with this project today. It’s the future I’m worried about,” said Beatty Mel. “We’ve seen it happen with the [nearby] Hebrew rehabilitation center. Whatever controls weren’t in place allowed them to build an addition and pave more space. It’s going to happen again.”

“This isn’t just 10 self-serving neighbors looking out for their interests,” said Hoffman. “It’s bigger than that. It’s for the whole city.”

The IMP also includes plans to raise the Weld Hill hilltop and maybe add rustic seating like the stone blocks on Peters Hill. The main entrance would be on Centre Street just past the VFW Parkway intersection. About 50 parking spaces would be added to the driveway near the building. The arboretum is seeking LEED Silver status, a high industry ranking of environmental friendliness.