Riverside Park at the old Mahoney's garden center site on Memorial Drive in Cambridge officially opened earlier this month. It's a satisfying outcome for a parcel with a tortured history in the annals of Harvard University and its neighbors, and a case study for when a big "starchitect" project doesn't happen.
Mahoney's was a kind of private public space for many years, attracting visitors who wandered in a maze of gardens and greenhouses. But the site was owned by Harvard, and in the late 1990s the university sought to build a new modern and contemporary art museum, also housing the installations of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, designed by Renzo Piano. The sweeping design was low-lying and sensitive to views to the Charles River, but suffice it to say neighbors in the Riverside section objected. One went so far as to say, "If you build it, we will bomb it."
The Allston-Brighton campus project has been getting all the attention lately, but Harvard's dealings in Cambridge are legendary. In one of the most telling episodes, neighbors blocked a proposal to build office and exhibit space near Gund Hall that was completely out of sight, underground.
The Mahoney's site battle was similarly raucous, but there was a valid point -- was this really the best place to put an art museum? Then-president Lawrence Summers pulled the plug on Piano, and negotiations began for a new assembly on the site -- housing including more graduate student housing, a park, and, in an unfortunate and very un-green move, an underground parking garage.
The result is the complex we see today along Memorial Drive at Western Avenue, a team effort rather than a one-man show: Riverside Park, designed by Halvorson Design Partnership , the graceful Riverside Park Pavilion by Touloukian Touloukian Inc., graduate student dormitory that nicely reflects the unabashed modernism of Peabody Terrace by Kyu Sung Woo Architects , and wood frame style houses, both student and affordable housing, along the neighborhood edge by Elkus Manfredi Architects .
The 3/4-acre park itself rises to the challenge of its frontage on a busy four-lane road, the grass and benches a welcoming oasis for watching the crew shells glide by.
The real coda may be what ended up happening with the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler museums, at the corner of Quincy Street and Broadway -- a smart decision to renovate in-place, sort of like passing on a new stadium and sticking with Fenway Park. And look who's doing the makeover, which preserves the historic design based on a 16th century Italian villa: Renzo Piano . His back-rising additions will add much-needed exhibition space; viewers currently see only one percent of the collection.
The 204,000 square-foot project, set to be completed by 2013, will complement the wonderful Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier's only building in North America, and keep everything much more in the center of things -- a walkable location appropriate not only for interesting architecture but to reflect the university's commitment to the arts and arts education. The T is a short walk across Harvard Yard.
The power of neighborhood opposition can still be seen in a bricked-over portal intended for a skywalk linking the Fogg and Sackler, a blocked attempt to bring these buildings together many years ago.
But this story is not about bemoaning what might have been. Riverside gets a well-designed park, Cambridge gets housing, and Harvard gets a sleek retrofit for its art museum, right at the gates to Harvard Yard. In the built-out metropolis, the name of the game is working with existing parcels and buildings, and working in the context of neighborhoods. Sometimes the process ends up working out after all.
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