Planning Board rejects Novartis courtyard proposal

Board raised concerns about gated courtyard, slope of ramps, and fencing’s proximity to street

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Novartis’ new campus on the east side of Massachusetts Avenue will have a green public courtyard; the planning board rejected their proposal for a gate that is open during the day (top) and closed at night (bottom).
Source: Novartis/Michael Van Valkenburgh

On July 17, the Cambridge Planning Board reviewed Novartis’ plans for fencing its public access courtyard at the new Novartis campus. The board rejected the plans due to concerns over the courtyard security, requiring Novartis to come back with a new proposal.

The new Novartis campus on the east side of Massachusetts Avenue will be 50 percent devoted to a public green courtyard, as a condition of the zoning petition that allows some parts of the new campus to reach 125 feet in height, as well as other miscellaneous zoning relief. The courtyard is designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a landscape architecture firm.

The board was concerned that there would be no public access to the courtyard on weekends or evenings, the times when members of the public with 9 – 5 jobs might want to use the space. Some members questioned the necessity of gating the area; Novartis is concerned about the security of their scientists in the face of potential protests.

Concerns were also raised about whether the area was inviting, and how the public would know they were entitled to use the space. (The board’s inquiry about signage was in response to a query from The Tech.)

The new campus, located at 181–211 Mass. Ave., is currently under construction and is expected to be finished next year.

The existing Novartis campus west of Mass. Ave. has a smaller, stone courtyard available for public use during business hours, but almost no one knows about it. With its black wrought iron fencing, it cannot really be considered inviting.

When the planning board approved Novartis’ zoning petition for the new campus, it attached a condition requiring Novartis to present its plans for courtyard security measures to the planning board.

In addition to the policy concerns about the courtyard, the board also raised technical questions, such as about the slope of ramps. It also noted that ramps exceeding five percent grade would require railings, but observed that those rails were not pictured in Novartis’ renderings.

The board asked Novartis to try to redesign the walkways to not require railings. The board also asked Novartis if the fencing could be further back from the streets.

A copy of Novartis’ submission to the planning board is available at It offers views of the campus from the streets with the fencing open as well as with the fencing closed.