THE SQUARE DEAL

Rising rents in the Square create an inhospitable environment for student-centered businesses.

Read Block, a collection of buildings at the center of Harvard Square that once housed The Tasty, will soon be home to chain retailers Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacific Sunwear.

As semi-clad models began adorning this Square landmark, it seemed like sacrilege to many. But others say the death of independent stores in the Square has been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, Harvard Square Business Association statistics show that for every four independent businesses that opened in the Square last year, only one national chain debuted.

And this rate has remained fairly stable for years, says Kristin T. Sudholz, the association's executive director. Still, the type of independent businesses that are moving into the Square are one reason why the area is changing.

The end of rent control has meant that only upscale businesses--whether a chain or independent--can survive.

And so cheaper stores catering to a predominantly student crowd could be the real dinosaurs of the Square.

Gentrification: Myth or Reality?

Square business-people say rumors of gentrification and a chain-store invasion don't exactly describe the ongoing changes in the area.

They are quick to note that it is not only small businesses moving out of Harvard Square, mentioning the failure of national chains such as Foot Locker, Laura Ashley, and Benetton in recent years.

The biggest cause for change was the end of rent control, under which Cambridge set a ceiling on rents landlords could charge. Phased out by December 1996, rent control's end has made it possible for landlords to charge what the market will bear--often far more than mom-and-pop stores can afford.

"Central Square is becoming what Harvard Square used to be," says Phyllis Sterbakov of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce. "Small businesses can experiment [there] and not have to worry [about] how they're going to pay the month's rent."

Square music store Briggs & Briggs recently moved to Porter Square after being located on Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square for 100 years. In the past year, Mass Army/Navy and Seven Stars bookstore have also relocated to Central Square. McIntyre & Moore Booksellers has also moved to Davis.

John DiGiovanni, president of Trinity Property Management, a real estate company with retail holdings in the Square, says he blames any "mallification" that is happening on the cutthroat nature of Square retail.

"Clearly a place that has name recognition has a leg up, and that's why people buy franchises--they're buying insurance," he says.

Though Trinity and Harvard University, which owns a fair amount of Square real estate, say they do not offer official "incentives" to small businesses, they do--contrary to popular belief--give those independent businesses preference.