Gatekeepers of the Square

As developers propose ambitious renovations, the Cambridge Historical Commission has been thrust into a city-wide debate about the future of Harvard Square.

Pedestrians walk by the first Curious George store, a well-known spot in Harvard Square that is now closing down business. Tim C. Devine

Days after Neil L. Rudenstine was tapped to serve as Harvard’s president in 1991, he received a letter in the mail from the City of Cambridge. The University’s construction plans for the Law School’s Hauser Hall were to be called before Cambridge Historical Commission for review.

According to William B. King ’54, the longtime chair of the commission and a 1959 graduate of the Law School, the blueprints were problematic.

“They wanted to site Hauser Hall in a way that had no sense of [architect] Walter Gropius’ construction of the Harkness Center, or a sense of the alley of trees in North Field,” King said of Harvard’s plans.

After many meetings with the Historical commission and Harvard’s administrative law professors, the plans for Hauser Hall were altered, much to the satisfaction of King and his fellow commissioners.

“Ultimately they got the word, and they got the message and Hauser Hall is beautifully sited now, Gropius is respected, the alley of the trees still works and even people at Harvard Law School have said ‘we learned,’” King said.{shortcode-96439a90dc1e91f8e523e099a3ee68a6a1e92a77}

In its 54 years of existence, the commission’s unique power over construction projects and renovations in Cambridge has not been limited to the confines of Harvard’s campus. The body exercises varying levels of jurisdiction across two historic districts, including parts of Harvard Yard, and four neighborhood conservation districts, one of which includes Harvard Square.

As the Square grapples with rapid development and swift business turnover, the commission has emerged as one of the few bodies in the city with the power and clout to determine Harvard Square’s uncertain future. Dozens of citizens pack themselves into its late-night monthly meetings in City Hall, thrusting the small, unelected body into the center of Cambridge politics.

Facing criticism from citizens and requests for greater transparency, the commission has itself become entangled in Cambridge’s storied history, finding itself accountable to two often opposing sets of demands: one to deepen Cambridge’s commitment to preservation and another to let the city evolve.

An Established Part of the Process

During the 1950s and in the early 1960s, the rapid development of urban areas and the clearance of old neighborhoods threatened to demolish structures beloved by Cambridge citizens. In response to this threat, in 1963, Cambridge became an early adopter of a Massachusetts statute allowing cities and towns to establish local historical commissions, according to King.


The commission was first charged with taking meticulous inventory of every building in the city, which was completed in 1977. Today, file cabinets covering the details of every building in Cambridge extend vertically to the ceiling of the commission’s office, standing as testament to the commission's continued archival work over the years.

Over the course of the next half century, the Historical Commission gained more control over city development projects through expansions in its areas of jurisdiction by the City Council.

“Since then we’ve been able to add to our authority several times, but each time it’s been in reaction to a particular series of events in the city,” said Charles M. Sullivan, who has been commission’s executive director since 1986.{shortcode-4ab96909d6093fddef18edff0e7c6ad49155a2b4}

Aside from keeping records and educating the public about Cambridge’s history, the commission can landmark important areas of Cambridge and designate neighborhood conservation districts, where buildings are protected from demolition and developer’s ambitions. In monthly meetings, the commission also adjudicates over building project proposals with public access.

“We got neighborhood conservation districts because in the 1970s neighborhoods were being threatened by overdevelopment,” said Sullivan. “We have the authority to review demolition permit applications when a lot of houses are coming down for apartment buildings.”

Most importantly, the city also gave the commission the power to approve proposed changes to the exteriors of Cambridge architecture, including many of Harvard’s buildings. Sullivan said that the commission has “total jurisdiction over what happens to the exterior, including paint color” of some of Harvard’s historic buildings. Nevertheless, Sullivan said he has a “productive” relationship with the University.{shortcode-a6b0d8d3db0981323c3d328106d591da4eaf07d2}

Unlike city legislative positions, commission members are not elected by residents. The Cambridge city manager appoints Cambridge residents to the Cambridge Historical Commission while making sure individuals from specialized fields, such as a real estate, architecture, law, landscaping, and urban history are represented in the commision.

In the event of a vacancy, the Historical Commission executive director must inform the City Manager, Louis A. DePasquale, and make hiring recommendations accordingly.

Membership to the Cambridge Historical Commission is often a long term commitment. Since there are no term limits for the position, only about 45 Cambridge residents have held membership in the 54-year history of the nine-person committee, according to King.

Sullivan cited the long-standing history of the commission as a strength of the city.


“I think the implication of that is that we’re recognized by this time as a regular part of the planning process in Cambridge,” said Sullivan. “A lot of projects that might be proposed in other jurisdictions just don’t even come up here.”

Yet, in recent months, some proposed projects have tested the limits of Sullivan’s assertion, causing public criticism of developers—and even the commission itself.

'Intervention' in the Square

Looking at Harvard Square today one would be hard pressed to find evidence of a city government considering a full scale “intervention” in the name of protecting the Square’s historical buildings. But that’s exactly what City Councillor Jan Devereux suggested should happen at a December meeting with Harvard Square stakeholders, including the Historical Commission.

Since then, the City hired a retail consultant to study the effects of gentrification and commercial development in Cambridge, an issue affecting urban areas around the country, according to Devereux.

Still, zoning laws from the City Council can only go so far in preventing the entry of new developments in the Square, while regulating building use could be seen as government overreach, according to Devereux.

“Our power is limited because our main power is the zoning,” Devereux said. “If it conforms to the existing zoning then we can’t, without changing the zoning. We don’t really get much of a say.”

Businesses, which would have otherwise been banned from the Square, have often changed their models to comply with Cambridge’s zoning laws, according to Assistant City Manager for Community Development Iram Farooq.

“At the time these ordinances about fast food were framed, the things in people's minds were McDonald’s and Burger King,” Farooq said. “We have to rethink how we address those in the zoning.”

With the City Council unable to prevent some major developments, community activists as well as the Council have turned to an established body with the ability to reject proposed projects: the Historical commission.


One such activist is Suzanne P. Blier, a Harvard African and African American Studies and History of Art and Architecture professor and member of Our Harvard Square, an activist group advocating for historical preservation formed following a controversy over the redevelopment of the Harvard Square Kiosk.

“In the case of Harvard Square, you are talking about companies with an awful lot of money with large potential impacts on the city,” Blier said.{shortcode-c0de97d421f415ce21b6fa6c18b67549f29945e1}

Of all the major projects in Harvard Square, none have received quite as much community opposition as real-estate firm Equity One’s proposed renovation to the triangular Abbott Building on John F. Kennedy St. and Brattle St., which houses the World’s Only Curious George Store.

Equity One purchased that valuable property in the center of the Square in 2016 from the Dow Sterns Family Trust, and quickly proposed a significant renovation to the structure, which would force out some stores like the Curious George Store.

Dow Sterns sold the Abbott Building to Equity One for more than $80 million in 2015, “which was probably four to five times what any rational person would imagine it was worth,” Sullivan said. “So this new owner, needs to make their money back, and that’s where the pressure was coming from.”

The proposal has come before the Historical commission four separate times, with another round of discussions scheduled for later this month. Each time the commissioners have asked the architects to alter the proposed facade, postponing but never outright denying Equity One the chance to reconstruct the building’s exterior.

Those meetings, which have sometimes gone past midnight, have been tense, with the commission acting as a mediator between the community, city officials and developers.

“At the Historical meetings, a given business is given as much time as they want to present their proposal, and they can come back as many times as they want,” Blier said. “But those of us in the audience are given a short period of time, generally three minutes, in which we can ask questions or make comments. It’s not an easy meeting for that reason.”{shortcode-6f8b9492c700323e9ae257da26f9691fe96083bc}

Activists and the City Council attempted to designate the Abbott building as a historical landmark earlier this year, a title which would have given the commission increased jurisdiction to protect the structure, but were denied by the commission. Activists have since appealed the decision.

The commission and activists often force the City Council to be “stuck in the middle” between a body they created and strengthened and the citizens who elected them.


“Part of me thinks that the sort of push-pull is useful,” Devereux said. “I think often we are on the same page but given each’s different interests and powers it's hard for us to realize that.”

'We Can't Pickle It'

Tensions between activists and the commission boiled over in January when Blier submitted a petition to the commission asking for a complete review and overhaul of the Harvard Square Conservation District.

On behalf of the commission, Sullivan responded with a memo in March, disputing the petition’s claims but agreeing on the need for review.

“Staff disputes any allegations that the commission has not acted appropriately, within its authority and in good faith,” Sullivan wrote. “However, staff also recognizes that there is significant public interest in the Harvard Square NCD and the Commission’s administration of the district.”

In the memo, the commission agreed to the formulation of a committee tasked with reviewing the conservation district. Seven individuals—three commissioners and four Harvard Square stakeholders— will sit on the committee during public meetings. As of May, the committee’s membership is still undetermined.

“We’ve got a list of candidates last week,” Sullivan said. “In a week or two we’ll start to interview and then make a recommendation to the City Manager.”

Relations between activists and the commission have become increasingly cordial since, with both sides recognizing the difficulty in weighing the fiscal benefits of future developments alongside the intangible benefits of historical character.

“[Harvard Square] has to be vibrant, we can’t pickle it,” Sullivan said. “We can’t fix it in any particular time.”{shortcode-a730d42e7bad8d407b7ef5db66f28d2db865aaa6}

Blier agrees.


“I don’t see it as a vanguard against developers, nor should it be,” Blier said. “They are in an important position acting as negotiators between history and the need to build.”

The Historical Commission will have its next monthly meeting on May 25 and the debate over Harvard Square will undoubtedly continue. The Equity One proposal is the only agenda item.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.


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