Southwestern Harvard Square is in for a new skyline.
Caught between the Charles Hotel development and Brattle Square, the area is one of the last in Harvard Square not to have fallen prey to the purveyors of chic boutiques and upscale office space.
Five development projects, including an addition to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, are planned for this Square area. All of them are clustered along Mt. Auburn and Eliot Streets, in an area that even local preservations consider to be short on historic charm.
Only one of the proposals has satisfied city regulators so far, but those farther behind in the bureaucratic maze still hope to start construction in 1988.
When these new developments are completed the Harvard Square shopping district will extend from the Yard to the Charles Hotel. Since the redevelopment of Harvard Square began at the start of this decade, builders have dreamed of removing what they consider uninviting relics of Cambridge's less affluent past and replacing them with the architectural symbols of the yuppie era.
Three of the projects in the southwestern sector of the Square area make up a cooperative effort among three private developers to extend the shopping district and provide more office space. But the largest step in this renovation of the area is Harvard's decision to lease the Harvard Motor House to the same developers who built the Charles Hotel.
The University also plans to use a $6 million gift by an anonymous alumnus to build a new research and office center for the Kennedy School of Government. Kathy Spiegelman, assistant director of Harvard's Planning Department, said the total cost of the project would be about $9 million.
"Too much, too dense," is City Councilor Alice K. Wolf's opinion of all the projects. Those four words sum up hours of argument in public hearings and private dickering sessions. They also predict scores of battles to come.
Several of the projects, including the Kennedy School addition, will seek ways to avoid the city requirement that new buildings provide parking spaces under or next to them. The Zoning Board may decide that these developers can compensate for the lack of parking by paying a fee or providing space for cars elsewhere.
Because parking is one of the greatest concerns for several neighborhood organizations, some of the zoning hearings this fall may be long and bitter.
The developers say they have tried to forestall some of the bitterness through concessions worked out with the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, a group of about 30 developers, neighborhood leaders, preservationists, and University administrators.
Many of the development proposals include more parking, smaller buildings, and less formidable expanses of glass and brick than the original versions did. But many local residents are not satisfied.
Echoing Wolf's sentiments, Councilor Francis H. Duehay '55 said that if all of the proposed buildings are constructed, southwest Harvard Square will become "just another collection of upscale office buildings."
Although Wolf said she wants the city to "take a strong role" in discouraging large developments, she added that "I think a lot of it's going to happen anyway."
The chance opened up for the largest development in the area when the University decided not to renew the contract of the Harvard Motor House, a favored hotel for parents of undergraduates. Instead, it leased the Motor House to the part-owners of the rival Charles Square Hotel. These new lessors plan to replace the House with an office building.
Harvard announced this summer that Carpenter and Co. paid an undisclosed sum for the lease with an option to buy the site after 20 years.
The property is assessed at $2.31 million and the existing building at $1.78 million. Harvard purchased the property in 1982.
Many builders said they will be glad to see the Motor House leave the skyline. "That's a monstrosity," said developer Louis F. DiGiovanni. "Anything would be better than that." And Spiegelman conceded, "It's a building that doesn't have much in the way of architectural character, the way it floats on those decks of parking."
Spiegelman said that of all the Motor House's critics, "the people who feel most that way are Carpenter and Co. because their major project is sitting across the street from what is considered an eyesore."
According to Carpenter's President John Hall, the new building will make the area more attractive. He said the Charles complex's shops are now "isolated by a two-and-one-half-block area" of snarled traffic and streets that seem unfriendly to pedestrians. "This southwest sector of the Square needs to be finished," he said.
Close by, the three other developers are cooperating to reshape the block housing Crate and Barrel, The Harvest Restaurant, and the Mt. Auburn St. Post Office.
Thirsty students may be saddened to learn that only a crater remains of several bars and restaurants: the Picadilly Filly, the Ha'Penny Pub, Vincent's, and The Blue Parrot.
DiGiovanni's Trinity Realty Co. razed the former Harvard dorm at 119-123 Mt. Auburn St. this July. City agencies have cleared his plans to replace it with a four-story brick edifice like the one housing Words Worth Bookshop in Brattle Square.
The project, to be known as One Mifflin Place, would open a walkway through the building housing Brattle Street's Crate and Barrel store and DiGiovanni's complex to Mt. Auburn St.
DiGiovanni has offered to lease the new building to its former tenants, but only the "Filly" and the Blue Parrot, which have a common owner, have said they will return.
The project's architect, The Architect's Collaborative (TAC), has offices along the passageway. TAC recently sold its building to Harvard, leasing back its offices from the University.
DiGiovanni's is the only Harvard Square construction project of the latest crop that has satisfied city regulators. The others must still brave the Zoning and Planning Boards and the Historical Commission.
Adjunct Professor of Business Administration William Poorvu, whose family owns the buildings on both sides of the former site of these favorite watering places, plans to replace the rear of his white frame building at 40 Brattle St. with a six-story office building. Club Casablanca, which now occupies that space, would move to the front of the building, taking its famous murals along.
Another element of this cooperative effort will be to replace the Cherry, Webb and Touraine (CWT) clothing store's building with a taller office building. Replacing that building, which is the closest to Brattle Square, would have to be done in partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which owns the air rights to the structure because a tunnel for Harvard Square buses runs underneath it.
A fight may be shaping up over the CWT developers' plan to build their project at night to avoid blocking the bus tunnel. City Councilor Alice K. Wolf said the noise of night construction would legally constitute an "environmental hazard" to nearby apartment-dwellers.
She said a Massachusetts law barring state property like the tunnel from producing "environmental hazards" may make it illegal to run air hammers there at three in the morning.
St. Paul's Development
Development and its perennial partner, political strife, also continue on the other side of the Square. Controversy surrounds a prized plot of land recently sold by St. Paul's Catholic Church. The buyer, H.J. Davis, Inc., plans to build 90 to 100 condominiums on the parking lot across DeWolfe St. from Quincy House.
The Newton-based company's $7 million bid defeated a dozen other proposals for the site, including the University's. The terms of Harvard's unsuccessful bid for the site would have let St. Paul's parish choose between a $3 million sale price with a promise to include some low-income housing in the development, or a $4 million ticket to develop the whole lot for profit.
Harvard offered so much less for the property because its proposal was for a smaller development. The University would have built about 30 apartments there, with half the combined floor area that zoning allowed.
The Davis Corporation hopes to buy Harvard's adjoining parking lot opposite Leverett House. By combining the adjacent plots, it could build more condominiums and give residents a better view of the Charles River. Spiegelman said University administrators have not yet decided whether to sell. "It depends," she said. "In exchange for what?"
Spiegelman said Harvard might sell the land if Davis used it to spread out the development over more space, thus making it a better neighbor. "We don't want a canyon on DeWolfe St.," she said, noting that "we've already created our own long wall" in the Quincy House facade.
In addition, Spiegelman said, "the density [of apartments] they're proposing is pretty intense." Zoning would permit Davis to develop 140 units if the two parcels were combined, but she said Harvard would probably not sell to Davis unless the developer promised to build fewer condominiums.
A deal may be ahead, Spiegelman said, because "that makes more sense than our trying sometime in the future to do something discrete on our own" to develop Harvard's parking lot.