Harvard Square--for all its acknowledged imperfections, which are manifold--is one of those rare congested urban areas which somehow seem to work at a human scale. Though not wholly rational, the underlying system--not clearly understood by anybody involved--should not be dealt with capriciously.--The 1976 Comprehensive Policy Plan for Harvard Square, compiled by the Harvard Square Task Force.
The Square is indeed one of the most exhilirating cultural and commercial centers in the country. The University (at once sagely academic and youthful), the affluent neighborhood to the west down Brattle St. and the less affluent, heavily ethnic neighborhoods at the northern and eastern ends of Mass. Ave, all combine into a cultural potpourri. This hybrid probably boasts the nation's highest concentration and variety of both ice cream and bookstores (including the oldest foreign language bookstore in the United States.) Harvard Square, as much as Harvard itself, draws tourists, soul-searchers, and cosmopolitans to mid-Cambridge--or at least keeps them here after they earn their degree.
But Harvard Square is right now "in transition" (a euphemism for mess) and construction blankets the blocks surrounding the Yard. There are currently five major commercial developments underway or in the works--not to mention a handful of University projects. Not since the Square rose to pre-eminence in the late 19th century has so much changed in the small region. One side effect is that the graduating Class of 1984 will never, in its undergraduate years, have known the Square without cranes and hardhats. (The same went for the Class of 1983). By the time the Class of 1987 returns for its junior year, however, the area should be as good as new.
The most noticeable project dominates the heart of the district, along the southwestern and western walls of the Yard. To the tune of $72 million, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is extending the Red Line of the subway system past Harvard (previously the end of the line) to Alewife. Along the way, the MBTA is re-land-scaping the Central area of the Square, widening sidewalks, setting up modern art displays, and planting trees where no green life existed before. But until the expected completion date of late 1984, denizens must continue to battle heavily congested traffic, limited pedestrian space, as well as noise and dust pollution.
Further out from the Square, work started this past spring in the previously vast tract of empty space near the Kennedy School of Government. About $100 million is being poured into two office/condominium projects which should, by the end of 1984, increase the Square's office space by one-third. The condominiums will sell from $150,000 to $750,000 each. A third project in that area is the overhaul of the Coolidge Bank--currently operating out of a trailer while its structure gets rebuilt. That work should be completed later this year.
The most controversial of these projects is the one slated to begin this March. The Niles Company wants to tear down one of the buildings on Mass. Ave., between Plympton and Linden Sts. As a result, three of the Square's oldest establishments are moving and may have to close their doors for good--Schoenhof's and Pangloss. Bookstores, and the Stone street clothing store. Though some development there remains certain, the extent is unclear as the developer is currently doing battle with the Cambridge Historical Commission. If that project goes according to schedule, it should be completed by the summer of '85.