With Forbes Plaza, Harvard compromised, Williamson reminded us of people power
The good news of a Harvard Square redesign reported early this month means belated congratulations and thanks are due Harvard University, the city’s Board of Zoning Appeal and a group of citizens led by activist James Williamson.
Harvard – sometimes an implacable force that leverages its wealth, omnipresence and powerful name in less than admirable ways – had a design proposal for the square’s Forbes Plaza (home to its Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center) that changed a lot of what people love about it, mainly turning much of its public dining area into fancier, but at-best quasi-public space.
Williamson and others disagreed with the changes, including replacing the plaza’s famous chess tables with designs discouraging to the serious players that gather around them daily. They made their unhappiness known to the university and the board (which on Oct. 1 approved the revised plans 4-1), and something deeply reassuring happened: The university listened.
Hearing concerns from citizens and board members, Harvard compromised and changed its plans. The biggest change was extending a first-floor glass wall only four feet farther than the existing Au Bon Pain restaurant, rather than 11 feet, leaving more of the plaza intact. The revised designs were labeled as “modified … to address the community concerns.”
“I think we were all quite surprised and pleased,” Williamson has said, calling the work with the university “a largely very successful collective effort.”
It was all the more remarkable given that the Historical Commission and Planning Board had signed off on Harvard’s earlier plans.
Williamson gave Harvard and Tanya Iatridis, its senior director of university planning, deserved thanks “for their, to me, surprising willingness to listen to the community.”
Williamson is a candidate for City Council in the Nov. 3 elections (fellow challenger Jan Devereux was also active in resisting the initial Forbes Plaza plans, as was incumbent Nadeem Mazen), and his successful rallying of citizen power and collaboration with Harvard is a signal of seriousness. In the Cambridge of Kendall Square tech innovations and “affordable housing” lotteries for families with six-figure incomes, he is a classic, unreconstructed hippie – quite literally, as his roots in social justice date back to the Chicago clashes of the Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society – and both dresses like it and campaigns with the fierce, jester wit of a latter-day Abbie Hoffman.
But this show of soft force with Harvard, and the very improbability of the win, shows two things: He can collaborate, and he can get things done. He might get a chance to show that as a city councillor; but he also has a valuable role in Cambridge as a street-level activist.
At the very least, when it comes to the public’s use of Forbes Plaza for decades to come, there should be as much gratitude for Williamson and his fellow citizens as there is for Harvard.