Critics say Harvard is drowning out what used to be a vibrant, offbeat neighborhood
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
ONE OF THE many tasks confronting Lawrence Summers, who will deliver his inaugural address as Harvard University’s new president this Friday, October 12, is changing the public’s perception of the university as a rapacious landlord in and around Harvard Square.
Harvard has commanded a formidable presence in the Square for years. Throughout the 1980s, the school bought up enough property in the heart of Cambridge’s oldest commercial center to put people on alert. By 1990, it had purchased three prominent parcels — 1201 Mass Ave, 51 Brattle Street, and 6 Story Street — so fast that the nonprofit Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF) held a neighborhood forum, " Harvard Expansion and the Future of Cambridge, " at which 200 residents and city officials complained the neighborhood would become little more than an extension of the campus. Nowadays, according to the university, Harvard owns and manages 295,000 of the 16 million square feet of commercial real estate in Cambridge — about 1.8 percent. Of the three million square feet in the Square itself, Harvard lays claim to a little over seven percent. The school, meanwhile, has also been leasing more and more office space to accommodate its burgeoning bureaucracy; it currently rents a total of 300,000 square feet in the area from Harvard Square to Central Square. Rents have soared with Harvard’s ever-growing demand, and small-time shops have gotten the boot. " Harvard needs space, so it will pay up for that space, " says James Dwinell, the chairman of Cambridge Trust Company, a community bank. " That puts pressure on all the commercial space here. "
Lately, however, area residents find that Harvard has done more than gobble up coveted property. The university, they say, has had a direct hand in stripping the life out of Harvard Square. Take the fate of the restaurant Up Stairs at the Pudding, which had been housed in the Hasty Pudding Club building on Holyoke Street for 19 years. The university, which bought the property in October 2000, has designs on the building, and they don’t include playing host to a top-notch restaurant (or, for that matter, to a venerable undergraduate club): the school wants to convert the property into a student-activities center. After much high-profile legal wrangling, the restaurant was forced to move out last June. The Pudding’s closure, in the words of one observer, " has left a sour taste in lots of people’s mouths. " For them, it represents a step toward the loss of the neighborhood’s traditional character and flair — and it’s that much more painful because Harvard precipitated it.
John Pitkin, a member of HSDF and a city-council candidate, says that the neighborhood has lost too many places that cater to residents, students, and professors. He says, " Harvard’s agenda is to get property for its academic use and to make money off the rest. Serving the community and protecting what’s friendly in the Square is way down on Harvard’s list, and that’s a problem. "
The question now is: can anything be done about it?
THE CLOSING of Up Stairs at the Pudding — which made headlines in the Harvard Crimson, the Cambridge Chronicle, and the Boston Globe — may have sparked the current debate. But the restaurant represents just the latest in a list of beloved businesses that the university has pushed out.
One of the most visible examples can be found at 90 and 92–94 Mount Auburn Street, property that Harvard bought in the mid 1980s. The site — located across from the shopping plaza known as the Garage, which also sits on Harvard land — houses two of the neighborhood’s favorite haunts: Skewers, a tiny, inexpensive Middle Eastern restaurant, and Harvard Provision Company, or the " Pro, " a well-stocked liquor store. In May 1999, both businesses discovered that their rental agreements with Harvard Planning and Real Estate (HPRE) would not be renewed. The university wants to demolish the historic triple-decker that houses them, as well as the neighboring vacant storefront, and build a $6 million five-story structure for a book-preservation center. Harvard hired the world-class Vienna architect Hans Hollein to design what it calls " an office building of the 21st century. " Its plans, however, were stalled last May when the Cambridge Historical Commission resoundingly rejected the project.
According to Kathy Spiegelman, vice-president of HPRE, which manages at least 215 acres of Harvard-owned property in Cambridge (as well as acreage in Allston/Brighton and Watertown), officials have yet to draft another design for the Mount Auburn plot. Leaving it alone is not an option, though. The existing establishments, she adds, must go as soon as the revised drawings are approved. The new building will include retail outlets — but apparently not these ones.
If businesses such as Skewers, the Pro, and the Pudding have been lost to Harvard’s academic interests, others have fallen victim to its economic interests. Take what happened to McIntyre and Moore Booksellers, for nearly two decades a popular Harvard Square destination for used scholarly books. Proprietors Michael McIntyre and Dan Moore set up shop in Davis Square, Somerville, four years ago after being forced out of their Harvard-owned storefront at 8 Mount Auburn Street because they could no longer afford the rent. It wasn’t that Harvard Real Estate, whose offices were above the store, was charging more than other landlords, the owners say. They paid $8300 per month for 2850 square feet of space — $35 per square foot per year, much less than the top Harvard Square rate of $130. On the other hand, McIntyre notes, " We were in a basement on the backside of Mount Auburn. " And to a small operation, even a small increase can seem " like giving blood, " as McIntyre says. " It still meant all we ever developed was debt. "
Months before their lease expired in January 1999, McIntyre and his partner had tried to negotiate with HPRE. The store, they reasoned, was worth more to Harvard than its rental value. As one of the heirs to a centuries-old neighborhood tradition of unique, independent bookshops, McIntyre and Moore lured seekers of obscure tomes and cheap textbooks from all over. It had loyal customers, many of whom were Harvard students and professors. But, McIntyre says, " we could never impress Harvard positively. " HPRE has since moved its administrative offices into the former storefront, erasing all memory of retail in that building.
Other small establishments have experienced a similar fate. Three years ago, for example, the Cambridge Trust Company had to shut down one of two Harvard Square branches. The bank had operated for 15 years in University Place, at 124 Mount Auburn Street, along with many professional firms. But when bank officials negotiated a new lease with HPRE, which had purchased the parcel in the 1980s, they saw the rent rise substantially. Not surprisingly, Dwinell, the bank chairman, chooses his words with care (Cambridge Trust has its flagship branch in the Holyoke Center, another Harvard property). He declines to discuss the details of HPRE’s rent hike. And he doesn’t say that Harvard " kicked out " or " threw out " a community resource — words that residents use readily. Still, he admits, " I was greatly disturbed by the increase. I felt it was not an appropriate amount. " Today, much of the space at University Place is filled with Harvard offices affiliated with the nearby Kennedy School of Government.
One long-time business owner (who, like many owners, requested anonymity) says that HPRE, wittingly or not, has changed the Square’s complexion for the worse: " It’s almost as if [officials] don’t understand what they’re doing in the long run. " Another proprietor, Louisa Solano, who has run the Grolier Poetry Book Shop out of a Harvard storefront on Plympton Street since 1974, puts it more bluntly. " I always predicted the Square would end up like a medieval city — walled in by Harvard properties. "
Next summer, the situation will get even worse when the last general used bookstore in the Square — the Starr Bookshop — will close its doors for good. The business is a tenant of the Harvard Lampoon, essentially a private club, where literary and dramatic stars as disparate as George Santayana, John Updike, and Conan O’Brien got their start. Two years ago, the Lampoon’s board of directors told proprietor Mark Starr that the club wants to use the storefront where his family has worked for 42 years, in the cellar of the Lampoon castle near Plympton and Mount Auburn Streets. Starr has managed to negotiate what he calls " a good deal " enabling him to remain until July 2002. Because of the agreement, he declines to comment about his impending departure — except to confirm that it will " most certainly " put him out of business.
Loyal customers have not kept quiet, however. " We were doing all we could to save the bookshop, " says Carol Bankerd, who lives in Riverside, the neighborhood sandwiched between the Square and the Charles River. She and others circulated petitions, raised money, and sent letters asking the Lampoon to reconsider. Residents even appealed to Harvard — to no avail. That the university isn’t directly responsible for the Starr’s demise seems irrelevant to many. As Bankerd puts it, " It’s another Harvard entity demolishing another place that’s dear to us. "
The overwhelming sense among Harvard’s detractors is that the school will do whatever it wants in the Square — regardless of its effect on the community. Pebble Gifford, of the HSDF, recognizes that, unlike other commercial landlords, the university does listen to residents’ concerns. But even so, she says, " Harvard is like one of those animals that devours its own. " Witness the ejection of the Pudding restaurant, which had come to be known as Harvard’s little clubhouse over the years; you could find professors and administrators entertaining guests there any night of the week. Gifford and many others say the school is behaving arrogantly, as if it believes anyone would kill to be its neighbor.
" Harvard often has this attitude, ‘What Harvard wants, Harvard gets,’ and it has the money to pay for it, " she concludes. " It doesn’t seem to understand that people do not want Harvard Square to be an extension of Harvard. "
Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001