Representatives from major stakeholders in Harvard Square participated in a roundtable hearing at Cambridge City Hall on Tuesday night that turned confrontational at times as attendees discussed the Square’s future.
The hearing, led by City Councillor Jan Devereux, chair of the Council’s economic development and university relations committee, was scheduled last month in light of recent developments in the Square that have provoked public backlash, such as the Harvard Square kiosk renovations.
The meeting began with updates from City councillors, City Hall employees, and Charles M. Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.
“I think it feels to many of us as though Harvard Square is in need something of an intervention,” Devereux said at the outset of the meeting. “I know this is a perennial conversation, but I think we’ve reached a point where we need that perennial conversation again.”
On behalf of Harvard, the University’s Director of Government and University Relations in Cambridge Thomas J. Lucey provided an update on Harvard’s many construction projects in the Square, including the renovation of the Smith Campus Center. The current renovation forced the relocation of b.good, the closing of Au Bon Pain among other restaurants, and occasional closures to Dunster and Holyoke Streets.
“From Harvard’s perspective, in terms of retail space we have, it’s 14 percent of the Square,” Lucey said, referring to Harvard’s local landholdings. “We’re interested in obviously a unique experience in Harvard Square; we’re committed to that.”
Harkening back to disputes over the Smith Campus Center’s design, Devereux called the Campus Center renovation “controversial.”
“I didn’t see it as controversial,” Lucey responded. “We’ve helped almost every single retailer relocate.”
For the most part, though, councillors were positive about Harvard’s role in the Square. Councillor Leland Cheung lamented that the city has not provided Harvard with a set of goals in recent years.
“I think what has been a little bit missing is we haven’t gone to the University,” Cheung said. “The last direction that Harvard got from Cambridge was that we boxed them in and said you can’t grow here anymore and that led to the development across the river.”
Also in attendance were attorneys from developer Equity One, a multinational developer with local holdings, and from Morningside, a venture capital firm founded by Harvard donor and Hong Kong billionaire Gerald L. Chan. The attorneys provided updates and fielded questions from the City Council.
Equity One has been involved in city politics for the past few months as it attempts to renovate the building that houses the Curious George store. After three separate meetings with the Cambridge Historical Commission, Equity One still has yet to receive approval for its proposed renovation.
“There is no expectation that anything will be happening in calendar year 2017,” said James J. Rafferty, a lawyer for Equity One.
Cheung spoke directly to Rafferty, asking him to tell managers at Equity One to keep the iconic Curious George shop. He proposed the council take up legislation to protect the Curious George store “at all costs.”
“To me it’s a dealbreaker,” Cheung said to applause.
Chan owns a number of buildings in Harvard Square, including Hotel Veritas and the building formerly occupied by Uno Pizzeria and Grill. Chan had intended to be at the hearing, according to Morningside representative Paula Turnbull, but Turnbull said he had a “dental emergency.”
Trumbull defended Morningside’s recent redevelopment projects on Mount Auburn Street and Church Street, despite criticism from the Council.
“I think that our rents are market-driven. The tenants who approach us want to be in the Square,” she said. “Gerald Chan has a great affinity for the Square. He’s purchased these properties for his commercial family enterprises with the intention of restoring it and making it as lively and attractive to the whole world.”
“If we want to talk about the big elephant in the room, we’ve got a dead theater in the middle of the Square. If they’re not going to do anything with it, I think the city ought to take it,” Cheung proposed.
—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.
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