For most Harvard students, Winthrop Square Park is just a small patch of grass wedged between Peet’s Coffee and JFK St. However, this small plot of land has played an outsized role not only in American history, but also in the current controversy over development in Harvard Square.
According to the Cambridge Historical Commission, Cambridge—then called Newtowne—was founded at the current site of the park in 1630 by Governor John Winthrop and Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley. In the mid 1890s, prominent architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm helped develop the space, after it was enclosed as a public park in 1834. According to some Cambridge citizens, that makes it the oldest such park in the country.
But this year, a new proposal from developer Raj Dhanda to build a three-story addition on the 57 JFK St. building next door has brought renewed attention—and controversy—to the park.
On Thursday, Dhanda will go before the Cambridge Historical Commission for the third time to submit revised plans of his proposal to add three stories of residential micro-units to the existing Galeria building, which sits adjacent to Winthrop Park and currently houses businesses including Staples, Yogurtland, and Shake Shack.
However, Katherine D. Dukakis—the Cambridge-born wife of former Governor Michael S. Dukakis—worries that the proposal will have a negative impact on the park. She first became involved with the park as a member of the Public Space Partnerships, which helped rehabilitate the space after it had fallen into disrepair in the 1980s.
“It was just awful before and there’s a real difference and we just don’t want to see that program destroy the park with no light because there’ll be shadows and no air,” Dukakis said.
“We have to get to the powers that be in Cambridge and make sure that that place is saved.”
Dukakis is not the only one concerned about the development. Kari Kuelzer, the general manager and co-owner of Grendel’s Den restaurant, is the current president of the Winthrop Park Trust, a private-public partnership whose mission is to “to protect and preserve the park,” according to Kuelzer.
“The preservation of the park is mostly keeping it in the condition in which it was conceived,” Kuelzer said. “The proposed development would put a significant portion of the park in the shade...and make it extremely challenging for the grass to grow.”
Additionally, some critics say, the proposed development does not fit in with the rest of Harvard Square.
“If something is to happen it has to respect the park and respect the context,” James M. Williamson, a longtime resident of Cambridge and community activist, said.
However, according to Dhandha, the updated proposal will better blend in with the surrounding area.
“One of the things we saw at the first and second meetings was concern that the addition and existing stories [of the building] did not connect with each other, so we made a very big effort to integrate the old and new in terms of facade design and materials,” Dhanda said.
In the revised proposal, the corner of the residential addition would have two, instead of three stories, to minimize the building’s profile. It also includes a balcony with a planter and trees that Dhanda thinks will visually complement the nearby park.
For Williamson, the changes are not enough.
“Now somebody comes along and wants to put a cheap three-story addition on an already pretty atrocious building,” Williamson said. “If you look at his most recent revised plan...it’s not a change really much at all. He’s not getting the message.”
Dhanda is hopeful that his new plans will get approved on Thursday at the Cambridge Historical Commission hearing, after which his next step in development would be to seek a special permit from the Cambridge Planning Board.
“I know some people have opposition to almost any development in Harvard Square, but I think the Historical Committee has commented at the last meeting that they agree this should be a project. And I think that was a major step,” Dhanda said.
However, many activists said they are not completely opposed to development.
“One could imagine a building that would be complimentary,” Williamson said. “This ain’t it.”
Dukakis noted that the height of the proposed addition was prohibitive.
“I think anything beyond one floor would be too much and I’m sure that most of the others are feeling the same way,” Dukakis said.
As the Historical Commission prepares to discuss the addition for the third time, opponents of the project are confident that Dhanda will not get the certificate of appropriateness necessary to move on.
“I think they’d really be going against the tide if they approved it,” G. Pebble Gifford, the former president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund said. “I doubt they’re going to drag it out much more after this.”
—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.
—Staff writer Celeste M. Mendoza can be reached at Celeste.Mendoza@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CelesteMMendoza.
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