Square Expansion Moves Into High Gear

While Harvard Square wavers between trauma and elation, construction of a new high-rise and planning for an underground garage is proceeding apace. The building and garage magnifiers as well as symptoms of the Square's mixed anticipation of the John F Kennedy Library Center have proven no less controversial than the Kennedy Center itself.

During the summer, Cambridge interest groups and residents began to seriously question the wisdom of ripping open the Cambridge Common to build a garage needed for the prospected Kennedy Center flow of visitors. That flow--or tidal wave--is expected to peak at well above one million tourists per year when the complex opens in 1976.

Objection to the underground garage have been raised concerning its impact on already crowded Mass Ave.. the cost of building below ground and preservation of such historical sights as the Washington Tree on the surface.

"We may even need legislation before doing anything," said Robert Bowyer, chief of the Cambridge Planning Office, referring to an 1836 law which forbids any action that might "disturb" the Common. "The Common has been wrapped up in legal things since Colonial days."

According to Bowyer, environmental considerations have become at least as important a factor as economics in any decision on the project. A number of citizens, he said, had expressed concern that the Common's appearance might not be improved by concrete ramp entrances protruding from the park.

Aesthetics also dictate that a decision be made soon on the garage, Bowyer said. Construction must being by 1973 if the Common is to have an unscarred appearance when the Kennedy Center opens.

Four blocks south of the Common on a beeline, a 19-story highrise Holiday Inn has begun to germinate. After four years of constant disputes with neighborhood and environmental groups concerned with the building's impact on traffic and skyline the owners. Cambridge Planners Trust, have decided to erect the pencil thin structure and are now preparing its foundation.

Originally, the developers requested zoning waivers to construct a cluster of taller and more massy buildings--a 26-story office tower two 20-story apartments, and five-story garage. The request was denied, and CPT announced thereafter its willingness to discuss alternate plans with Cambridge citizens and business groups to reach a consensus.

They've wanted a long time for the city to make up its mind," Bowyer said last week. He speculated that the developers had renewed their construction efforts this summer in an effort to jog city officials and local groups into a more receptive mood for suggestions.

Both the garage and the Holiday Inn are part of an avid rush by local landowners to cast a plastic gloss of commercial development over the Square. Already--a giant craft and specialty mall, nested on nearly half a block parallel with Holyoke Center, is half complete. Nearly 40 small businesses have been expelled by soaring rents and the commercial muscle of concessions like McDonald's and Baskin Robbins. Max Wasserman, the most innovative and prosperous of the Harvard Square landlords, has extensively remodeled more than a score of his properties. All developers expect the JFK center to energize the Square's economy in a quantum jump.

But if there are future hopes for the flow of cash, there are many who panic when they think of the 'flow' of cars. Already, navigation of Cambridge streets resembles the maneuvers by a sailing fleet in the Doldrums.

One of the other developments of the summer, however, has eased a number of fears about the potential traffic trap. City Planning officials, in consultation with Center architect I.M. Pei, reached rough agreement in late July on the location of a major new road to connect Memorial Drive to Boylston Street. Designed to funnel cars from North, South, and West quadrants to the heart of the Library site, it will probably be recessed of built underground for several blocks.

Bowyer also announced last week that Cambridge had agreed to cooperate with the Kennedy Center in building an on-site parking garage. On the basis of traffic surveys studied over the summer, he said that new parking, facilities were urgently needed. "A good amount of the traffic in the Square is cruising for space," Bowyer commented. "And 50 per cent of the traffic, so far as we can tell, has a destination in Harvard Square." The Kennedy Center garage will harbor at least 600 cars.

The proposed underground Common garage, though centrally situated and of ample proportions, appears to have a number of problems with access ramps. If situated on sides of the Common adjacent to or facing Mass. Ave., the traffic clots and bottlenecks would be enormous. If located on the opposite side of the Common, the absence of a major east-west attery would clog residential streets.

If the Common garage proves unfeasible when the $225,000 study is completed next month, Bowyer said Cambridge will be forced to buy prime land and build above ground. The money lost by purchasing the property, however, he said, would be largely offset by avoiding underground construction costs.