MBTA May Sell Square Site

MBTA might auction off Mount Auburn Street real estate

The electrical substation and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) busway located near the Charles Hotel may soon be redeveloped, State Representative Alice K. Wolf said at a meeting held Wednesday to discuss preliminary sale and development plans.

The MBTA plans to sell the “Conductor’s Building” and adjacent power transformer, located on Mount Auburn Street, to the highest-bidding and “responsible” developer while maintaining control of certain easements—interests in the property—that would allow it to continue supplying buses and overhead power to the MBTA station.

Zoning officials estimate that, if the City of Cambridge approves the project, up to 64,000 square feet of new commercial and parking space could be developed. The MBTA is still in the process of appraising the value of the site, which it hopes to put up for public bid within the next month.

The MBTA has already discussed the project with several interested buyers. MBTA Director of Real Estate Mark E. Boyle said he has had “multiple conversations” with Harvard but is not aware of any connection with this site to the University’s Allston expansion project.

Among a number of suggestions for transportation improvements, the Allston Life Task Force Report notes the possibility of integrating the existing MBTA bus tunnel into a cross-campus transportation system. This option, however, was not mentioned in the meeting.

Residents who attended the meeting wondered, with concern, whether Harvard, which owns the nearby Harvard Square Motel, had any interest in the project.

Harvard University’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power said that resident concern was premature.

“As a neighbor of the property and a member of the Harvard Square community, we are interested in ensuring that future development of the property enhances the vitality of the Square,” she said. “With that goal in mind, we’ll follow the process closely.”

Representatives of the MBTA and several Cambridge interest groups held a panel discussion on the potential opportunities and obstacles associated with the project.

“The Conductor’s Building is an unattractive space that has also been recently vacated due to unsafe conditions,” Boyle said during the panel. “This project gives the MBTA the unique opportunity to maximize its non-fare revenue and allow a developer to improve this space in the Square.”

Built in 1912 as an office for streetcar conductors, the Conductor’s Building is a designated historical space—the implications of which may impede the development process.

“Although it might be most attractive for developers to demolish the building, the Massachusetts Historical Commission must conclude if there is a prudent or feasible alternative to demolition,” Cambridge Historical Commission Executive Director Charles Sullivan said.

Other city-interest groups generally supported the development plan and expressed their hopes that the MBTA would choose a developer whose intentions fit the desires of Cambridge residents and tourists.

Officials in Harvard Square Defense Fund, an organization that typically opposes commercial development in the Square in an effort to preserve its “scale and congeniality,” said they see this project as a potential benefit to city life.

“Although we do feel that the Conductor’s Building is charming, it is a dead spot in the Square,” said Fund President Jinny Nathans. “We want the Square to flourish and see great potential in this site to create a vibrant pedestrian environment.”

Interest group members said they hoped that the developer would improve the area’s pedestrian experience—even with logistical challenges posed by the busway’s operation.

Wolf suggested that the MBTA consider this and select a developer who can offer a solution to the problem of accommodating both buses and passersby.

The public meeting’s purpose was to inform Cambridge residents of the MBTA’s intention to develop the space, Boyle said. The MBTA had a recent “debacle” with Porter Square residents, he said, when it tried to sell the Porter MBTA station’s development rights without consulting the public first.

—Staff writer Carolyn A. Sheehan can be reached at csheehan@fas.harvard.edu.