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CAMBRIDGE, MA-In what is being termed a “historic” agreement between Harvard University and the city, the Cambridge City Council has agreed to rezone properties owned by the university to allow it to develop student housing. In exchange, Harvard will build approximately 34 units of affordable housing for city residents on the sites and provide nearly an acre of new open space along the river at the corner of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive.

The agreement follows decades of a contentious relationship between the city and Harvard in which local residents resented Harvard’s increasing development in the area. Calls to the city council were not returned by deadline, but in a statement Harvard says that the vote was unanimous.

“This is a creative solution,” David Maher, city councilor and co-chair of the city’s Ordinance Committee, says in the statement. Maher led the process that resulted in the agreement. “It allows the city to accomplish its public policy objectives of creating open space on the river and affordable housing, while allowing Harvard to meet its housing needs for these sites.”

The deal means that Harvard can now build graduate student housing at a number of sites it owns in the Riverside neighborhood such as the two-acre site near the Charles River where the university had proposed building an art museum last summer. Local opposition to the plan convinced the university to propose student housing for the site instead. The museum proposal engendered such opposition that it prompted the city to impose an 18-month building moratorium on the area. The site is currently leased by Mahoney’s Garden Center. The university plans on building two projects of approximately 250 beds each.

The agreement follows a long process in which a group of residents proposed downzoning which the university says it could not support. The new zoning established a provision allowing higher development associated with community benefits that will allow Harvard to meet its graduate student housing objectives at Memorial Drive, Cowperthwaite, and Grant streets.

“This is a very positive resolution that marks the beginning of a new constructive relationship with this community following decades of tension,” says Mary Power, senior director of community relations. The university notes that additional housing will help it meet its goal of housing 50% of graduate, professional and medical school students. Harvard also points out that additional housing also helps relieve pressure in the local housing market by taking students out of the private-housing market.

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