Ed. note: This post has been extensively rewritten to take into account Harvard's decision to postpone any work and to add a statement from somebody in favor of it.
Harvard's Arnold Arboretum says it's put a controversial proposal to put solar panels on an open field at Walter and Weld streets on hold.
Still, five city councilors have written Harvard President Drew Faust to make clear their objections to the plan for the land Harvard owns across from the Arnold Arboretum - and request that Harvard use a neighboring parcel instead..
Harvard had proposed putting the panels on a 6.9-acre parcel now maintained mainly as an open field, with some areas set aside for botanical experiments.
News of the proposal sparked an uproar among neighbors who said the solar panels would violate an agreement the university signed in 2009 to keep the land clear and open to the public in exchange for them dropping their opposition to a research building Harvard wanted to build off Centre Street on a neighboring parcel.
But after a meeting with neighbors earlier this week, the Arboretum has shelved the plans for now. Stephen Schneider, director of operations at the Arnold Arboretum, said in a statement:
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. The Arboretum believes strongly in engaging in sustainable and energy efficient practices, and believes installing a ground-mounted, photovoltaic system would be in line with those goals. However the project is not moving forward in order to convene conversations with abutters and neighbors.
The councilors - Tim McCarthy, who represents Roslindale, Michelle Wu, who lives there, and her fellow at-large councilors Annissa Essaibi-George, Michael Flaherty and Ayanna Pressley - say they are all for solar panels, but not on an open field across from the Arboretum that Harvard had pledged would remain undeveloped as condition for putting up a research building nearby.
In their letter to Faust, the councilors say Harvard could erect the solar panels on the "designated development area" around the research building - and that the issue is not reducing Harvard's desire to reduce its carbon footprint but in making the university keep its word, as memorialized in documents its officials signed off on as part of BRA approval:
Contemporary solar technology can work well in many locations. There is ample room within the designated development area for a solar installation, either on undeveloped portions of the parcel or elevated over the parking lot similar to those recently installed over the Roxbury Community College parking lot.
In a posting in the Keep Roslindale Quirky Facebook group, Wu explained why she signed the letter:
For us this is not an issue about delaying renewable energy development, which we all agree is incredibly urgent for us as a society and as elected officials to pursue. This is a siting issue about upholding commitments made to the community after neighbors, the City/BRA, and Harvard negotiated for over three years and then came to a shared understanding about this open space. I’ve posted the language of the relevant restrictions on this parcel below.
If legal commitments made by institutions and corporations to the community are only binding so long as people remember them because government will only enforce them selectively, how can we expect anyone to trust government? In Boston we are trying to take big steps to fight climate change (Community Choice Energy to override the state minimums for renewable energy sourcing and ramp them up quickly, improving cycling infrastructure and public transit, transitioning to net zero development and reducing our municipal carbon footprint) but even these depend on people being able to trust that promises made to the public will be remembered and kept. For me, that accountability is fundamental.
Resident Alan Wright, who supports the idea of solar panels on the land, said the opponents, including the councilors, are simply mistaken about an issue like reducing an institution's carbon footprint that is so important today. In his own post in the Keep Roslindale Quirky group, he writes:
The agreement restricted the placement of buildings on the 7 acre parcel to the north side but allowed the Arboretum management to place other non-enclosed structures that are consistent with the mission of the Arboretum. The solar array is consistent with the mission and the agreement. Other interpretations can be reached only through selective reading and wishful thinking about no change occurring in the world. The array will be placed on removable cement pads, be low to the ground, behind a fence and bush cover, largely not visible from the streets, and not restrict public access to the hill. Unfortunately, a few people, who are not representative of the residents of the Longfellow area nor of Roslindale, have cherry-picked language in the agreement to mislead some public officials to oppose the plan.
Councilors Wu, McCarthy, Essaibi-George, Presley, and Flaherty have been misdirected into thinking they are defending an important principle but are doing so at the expense of making essential progress in protecting the environment of our only home - Earth. You can help reverse this mistake by writing your support of the plan to Mayor Walsh and other officials at Mayor Walsh [email protected]; Brian Golden, Boston Planning and Development Authority, [email protected]; Commissioner William Christopher, Boston Inspectional Services Department, [email protected].