New Development Surrounds Riverside Neighborhood

Town and gown are finally meeting in Cambridge's Riverside neighborhood.

Long a working-class enclave between the Charles River and Central Square, Riverside is going upscale, and the long-testy relationship between residents and neighbor Harvard University has improved dramatically.

After dropping plans to build a museum on a prominent corner because of neighborhood opposition, Harvard is on more peaceful terms with Riverside residents as it now builds new dorms for graduate students and affordable housing for some Cambridge residents. The additional housing should ease pressure on the neighborhood's rental market.

Meantime, Riverside's combination of convenient location and rich, quirky architecture are drawing affluent young professionals, who cite Riverside's offbeat funkiness as one of the chief draws.

"There are many people who are attracted to Riverside who could afford to live elsewhere," said Dean Atkins, an attorney. "It's a nice mix of intellectual progressives and working class. My wife and I were looking on Beacon Hill, but it's plain vanilla compared to this."

The Atkinses live in a kitschy 1960s-era round building at 348 Franklin St. that is emblematic of Riverside's eclectic architectural mix.

"It's sometimes referred to as the Austin Powers building," said Atkins, who bought a condominium there in 2003. "But the apartments are wonderful; you essentially get a pie-shaped space that is efficient, quiet, and gets a lot of light."

At the neighborhood's other architectural extreme is an elegant 1846 Greek Revival House at 135 Western Ave., a local landmark with four Ionic columns that is currently under renovation. According to Arthur Choo Jr. of Choo & Company Architects, the house's owner is refurbishing it with financing assistance from Just-A-Start Corporation, a non profit community development organization.

"There's been a lot of meddling over the years with numerous layers of siding, and we're trying to bring it back as close to the original condition as we can," Choo said.

As Cambridge neighborhoods go, Riverside is something of a free spirit, and it shows. Less uniform in appearance, and worn down in some places, Riverside was for years a haven of cheap housing during rent control. The elimination of rent control in 1994 forced many long time residents to move out. But the neighborhood was also among the most affordable in the city, setting the stage for the changes happening today.

"When I bought here in 1995 it was the only part of Cambridge that you could touch," said Lisa J. Drapkin of Coldwell-Banker Residential Brokerage, a Riverside resident and a long time neighborhood champion.

Some residents refer to Riverside's reputation in affectionate, almost self-deprecating terms.

"In this neighborhood, historically there haven't been barriers to making dramatic changes to property. If you wanted to take a chain saw to your house, you could," said Mick Correll. "You cross Mass. Ave. into mid-Cambridge and it's completely different."

Correll and his wife, Monique Brouillette, had just acquired half of a Mansard French Second Empire duplex on Kinnaird Street, and were moving furniture into the 1850s-era house one recent weekend.

"We call this the suburbs of Central Square," Brouillette said.

"There's a sense in Riverside that you can paint your house whatever color you want," said Marie Koger, a resident of Franklin Street, pointing out purple and orange houses near hers. "It's a First Amendment thing."

Koger and her husband Jim, a retired designer of medical devices for Boston Scientific, lived in the neighborhood during the 1980s and '90s, and then returned and bought a house on Franklin Street after living in California.

Free spirit or not, developers are providing the neighborhood with yuppie-friendly new housing. One such is 290 on River, a 20-unit townhouse development adjacent to the Whole Foods supermarket on River Street near Memorial Drive.

The townhouses are grouped among seven buildings that all face inward to a landscaped parking court. Each unit features a small garden and garage parking. Prices range from $464,900 for a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath to $549,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath corner unit. The first phase is nearing completion and the second phase has not yet started, but 50 percent of the units in each phase are already under contract.

"The price has been non negotiable, and even so the demand has been quite remarkable" said Sandrine Deschaux, a vice president at Channing Real Estate, leasing agent for the complex. "People are buying second-phase units without even seeing them. I've been amazed at the demand from the biotechnology sector especially. All you have to do is get on Memorial Drive and you're in Kendall Square in five minutes."

If 290 on River forms one edge of the neighborhood, at the opposite end Harvard University continues to grow, although to somewhat less resistance than in the 1960s, when it earned the community's enmity for building the towering Peabody Terrace student housing complex nearby.

"We have a lot of common interests with the neighborhood," said Tom Lucey, the university's director of community relations for Cambridge.

Having dropped its plans for a museum by the Italian architect Renzo Piano in 2002, now the university is building a 250-bed graduate student dorm designed by architect Kyu Sung Woo on the old Mahoney's Nursery grounds at the corner of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive. This site will include a riverfront park open to the public. Nearby Harvard is also building a complex that combines low-rise brick buildings with townhouse-like wood structures that will also house 250 students and other affiliates.

Once these are built, Lucey said, Harvard will have achieved its stated goal of housing 50 percent of its campus wide graduate students in Harvard housing.

Harvard is also retrofitting the former Cambridge Light Company switch house on Blackstone Street into 33 units of affordable housing, with another six units in new buildings nearby. Qualification for this housing will be administered by the Department of Cambridge Community Development.

Cambridge officials appear to be pleased by the university's community-friendly stance. Roger Boothe, director of urban design for the city said, "Harvard had a plan before that was twice the scale."

Big as it is, even the Harvard touch may not change Riverside's essential character — one that gives its residents a curious kind of bragging rights in this quirky city.

"I like the idea that the neighborhood has an edge to it," said Franklin Street resident Dan Coleman, who grew up in New York's Greenwich Village. "Unlike the neighborhood west of Harvard Square, here it's not all about good taste."