Harvard Square Culture War: A Bid for Sparse Retail Space

Plans to replace funky cafes and moldy bookstores with steel and glass mall-space have locals up in arms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's not the big-name stores, trendy restaurants, or cluttered coffee shops that make Harvard Square one of the hippest hangouts on the East Coast and one of Boston's top tourist stops.

Here, the currency is pop culture; the main attraction, attitude. Harvard Square - just beyond the prestigious university's iron-gated yard - is a people-watcher's paradise. Jugglers, folk musicians, and the homeless compete for the coins of tourists and professors on their way to a Kurosawa film festival or one of the area's bookstores. Leftist fiction? Try Aisle 9.

But this eclectic brew, centuries in the making, may soon lose some of its Cambridge flavor. Currently, some four construction projects are being considered that could drastically alter the face and feeling of Harvard Square.

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One proposed project - in the very heart of Harvard Square - would demolish three sagging 200-year-old buildings and replace them with a four-story structure for offices and small shops. Two turn-of-the-century restaurants would be forced out.

Down the road, two more old edifices are slated for destruction and another multilevel, multiuse structure would poke into the city's traditionally squat skyline.

The result, says James Steene, manager of the Wursthaus Restaurant, a German eatery that opened in 1917, will be to cut off the square's historic roots and squander its individuality. "Over time, you change the square until it's not Harvard anymore," he says.

This bustling center for local businesses, tradesmen, and artisans is becoming little more than a sprawling mall, he says. Retail giants such as the Gap, the Limited, Urban Outfitters, and Tower Records have already set up shop here. Chains, Mr. Steene says, are the only ones that can afford the astronomical rents.

But some argue that replacing crumbling structures can only add to Harvard Square's appeal. "Unless a new vitality comes into the square, there'll be further deterioration of retailing," says architect Easley Hamner of Stubbins Associates, the firm that would demolish and rebuild three buildings in the center of the square. "Any organism has to change in order to stay alive and stay vibrant."

With the battle heating up, the Cambridge Historical Commission has entered the fray. This summer, it will review several reconstruction proposals and decide whether some of the buildings slated for destruction should be designated as historic landmarks, or whether the entire square should be given protected status.

The contentiousness of the debate between preservationists and developers is hardly new to this city known for its activist tendencies and politically left leanings. Founded in 1630, the city las long had a tug-of-war over whether the city should grow and take on newer, more industrial roles or limit itself to a tight-knit university community.

In the 1970s, a war of sorts was waged over plans to construct the John F. Kennedy Museum near the JFK School of Government just behind Harvard Square and again with the extension of the subway farther into the suburbs.

This time, change comes in the wake of a rebounding economy, and retail property is a hot commodity. With most of the square already developed, developers are looking for ways to use the land more efficiently.

It's a shift that saddens Mr. Steene. "We're losing history," he says, motioning around his restaurant, where pictures of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and John Kennedy grace the walls. "Losing history and gaining greed."

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