Ongoing renovations of Harvard’s Weld and Newell Boathouses along the Charles River have recently drawn scrutiny from an environmental group advocating for increased public access to the riverside docks.
The historic boathouses’ construction more than 100 years ago predated Massachusetts’ Public Waterfront Act — also known as Chapter 91 — which dictates that private constructions on the waterfront must “serve a proper public purpose.” The Charles River Watershed Association, a local non-profit environmental group, said Harvard must increase public benefit in its waterfront presence in light of its ongoing renovations.
Harvard began renovations this summer on the boathouses to modernize the buildings and increase accessibility, an undertaking which requires state approval to ensure Chapter 91 compliance.
Jennifer Ryan, deputy director of advocacy at CRWA, said it is unclear if the renovation project is currently in compliance with the public access requirements.
Harvard has released plans and proposals for both projects, but Ryan said the University “did not provide nearly enough detail on the issues around public access.”
“Harvard has not been forthcoming or transparent in their Chapter 91 due-diligence, and has restricted public access without compensation to the public for many years,” Ryan wrote in a follow-up emailed statement. “This is about upholding public rights.”
Ryan said Harvard should provide an evaluation of existing public access and a “feasibility study” to ensure a “full exploration of what is possible at those sites.”
In an October hearing, representatives from Harvard held that public access to the docks is not feasible, as they are currently accessible only via the private boathouses, the Boston Globe reported. The representatives added that keeping the docks private is necessary to protect boating equipment and ensure student safety.
Matthew J. Lyons ’26, a member of Harvard’s lightweight men’s crew team, said he agrees with Harvard’s justification for keeping the facilities private.
“I feel like there would actually be a pretty big safety hazard if it was open to the public,” Lyons said.
Lyons cited incidents during the Head of the Charles Regatta last month, where some rowers’ personal belongings went missing when the boathouse hosted other teams.
Ryan said there are solutions that can provide public access without sacrificing the safety of student rowers.
“We're not asking for the public to be able to go into the boathouses while the students are there,” Ryan said. “I think there’s a little bit of misconception around that.”
Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa wrote in an emailed statement that the University has proposed alternate plans which would provide public benefit while still keeping the boathouses private.
“The University’s renewal of the Weld and Newell Boathouses enables significant public realm upgrades, including improvements to the public pathway network and landscape features,” Kamosa wrote.
Kamosa added that Harvard has committed to supporting the development of a new dock on the Charles River. The proposed dock would be at Christian Herter Park, around a mile from the Newell Boathouse, and would be open to the public and high school rowing teams.
But Ryan said that there is not enough information about Harvard’s proposals to determine whether they are sufficient in providing public access.
“It is premature to opine on filings that we haven’t seen,” Ryan said of Harvard’s proposed support of the Christian Herter Park dock.
Other private entities whose facilities lie along the waterfront and do not allow for public access — like boat clubs or other universities’ docks — may have an interest in the outcome of CRWA’s advocacy.
A successful push from CRWA could set a precedent for forcing these groups to invest in greater public access to their property, like creating walkways or additional docks.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Edmund Coletta wrote in a statement that “these facilities are subject to licensing under Chapter 91” and that they “will continue to be reviewed under the current Waterways Regulation.”
Ryan said that Harvard should consider how to best support Cambridge beyond merely abiding with regulations.
“Harvard is leaning into a diversity, equity and inclusion paradigm and wants to find ways to be more creative and innovative in being a good partner,” Ryan said. “This is an opportunity.”