Harvard University is once again at odds with its neighbors in Boston about development plans, this time in Roslindale.
At the Arnold Arboretum.
About solar panels.
The university had planned to erect an approximately 1-acre solar panel field on a grassy meadow at the intersection of Weld and Centre streets, an auxiliary of the Arboretum that borders Jamaica Plain.
But residents and the local neighborhood association have embarked on a fierce campaign to halt the development, saying it violates a decade-old agreement between them and the university to allow for a building to be built on the land, while preserving the rest.
Now, it seems, the university is backtracking. Harvard obtained a city permit for the panels in December, though officials said Thursday that they had halted their plans after meeting with community representatives that month. A spokesperson said the permits were mistakenly pulled.
“The project is not moving forward at this time, and the Arboretum is committed to continuing conversations with abutters and residents with the goal of improving the project,” said Stephen Schneider, director of operations at the Arboretum, an entity of Harvard.
He added, “The Arboretum believes strongly in engaging in sustainable and energy efficient practices . . . However, the project is not moving forward in order to convene conversations with abutters and neighbors.”
The Boston Planning and Development Agency, which initially reviewed Harvard’s proposal, determined that the solar array would not be prohibited on the site, but later encouraged the university to “work closely with the community to ensure that this project is appropriate for the surrounding neighborhood.”
On Thursday, the neighbors said they would continue their opposition regardless, pointing out Harvard’s disputes with other neighborhoods before, notably over Allston expansion plans. In a petition filed by 56 individuals as well as the Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association, they appealed the city’s decision to grant a permit for the panels. A hearing is scheduled for March 6 before the Zoning Board of Appeal.
“The land was intended to be for public enjoyment, which is not exactly what solar panels do,” said Jenny O’Donnell, one of the neighbors who helped organize the campaign, saying the solar panels would take away from the picturesque views. “It’s a beautiful piece of green space that Harvard was committed to, in exchange for building [a research facility].”
O’Donnell said she and other residents embrace the concept of solar panels but said Harvard would be reneging on an existing agreement that was meant to preserve open space at the Arboretum, Harvard’s museum of plants and trees that is part of Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” of parks. The land, known as Weld Hill, is an auxiliary of the Arboretum and is declared in city zoning records as a Horticultural and Botanical Resource Study Area. Residents described a majestic walk through a grassy meadow up a hill.
“This has nothing to do with solar; this has to do with an abrogation of a contractual relationship that was meant to last for the long term. That’s my concern,” said Julia O’Brien, whose backyard abuts an Arboretum wall on Mendum Street, not far from Weld Hill. “The long-term vision for that area has always been that it would be an open meadow and that it would be publicly accessible.”
At issue is a deed restriction Harvard agreed to as part of a plan to develop on the 14-acre grass and wooded land that sits between Weld, Centre, and Walter streets. The university wanted to build what is now the Weld Hill Research Building. The area is zoned residential.
A community task force was set up to help develop an Arboretum Institutional Master Plan, and the city, residents, and the university reached a compromise: Harvard could develop on approximately half the property, while the other half — approximately 6 acres — would be protected.
In the residents’ view, Harvard had the right to erect a temporary tool shed there, but otherwise all the university could do was plant more plants. Not even a fence could be erected, residents argue.
The Weld Hill Research Building only takes up approximately an acre of the developable land, and residents say the university has the authority to propose solar panels there. The neighbors suggested the university should build there. They also said they are determined to protect the remaining land, saying Harvard had long ago agreed to those restrictions.
On Thursday, the city’s four at-large city councilors, as well as Councilor Tim McCarthy, who had been meeting with residents, city officials, and Harvard representatives over recent months, sent a letter to Harvard president Drew Faust calling on the university to change its plans “to be consistent with commitments previously made to the community.” The letter embraced the solar panels — but urged that they be built on the developable site.
“We all support increasing renewable energy . . . that’s not the question,” said Councilor Michelle Wu, who lives in Roslindale and said she’s heard from an increasing number of opposing residents. “But there doesn’t need to be a trade-off of open space for renewable energy at this particular site. This particular piece is protected after a commitment Harvard made to the community.”