Council Discusses Square’s Future

Local leaders advise city council to preserve "spirit" of Harvard Square

The spirit of Harvard Square should be protected and nurtured, local business and cultural leaders told city councillors yesterday.

The meeting emphasized the importance of local business, cultural projects, and restaurants in drawing people into the Square. Attendees also saluted the University for supporting the Square.

City Councillor Marjorie C. Decker, who chaired the meeting, called for a branding-and-marketing campaign to showcase the Square’s “funky” identity. She drafted this into a policy order, which will be introduced at the City Council’s next meeting.

“What people really enjoy about Harvard Square is the public space and the art that happens there,” said John DiGiovanni, president of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA).

Many of the meeting’s attendees said that the Square’s cultural life is centered around non-profit organizations. These include the Brattle Film Foundation, which runs the Brattle Theater, and the Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center, which organizes Club Passim, music lessons, and free children’s concerts.

Because of their status as non-profits, these organizations need support from the city to survive competition from for-profit businesses, Decker said.

The executive director of the Cambridge Arts Coalition, Jason Weeks, said that their program that sponsors street performers in the Square is a national model for urban arts projects.

Those attending the meeting were uniformly positive about the University’s support for the Square.

“Harvard understands that students will come in any case, but their quality of life, safety, and well-being are enhanced by a thriving Harvard Square,” Decker said.

The University recently contributed $1.3 million for infrastructure development in the Square. This investment will go, in part, to the transformation of Palmer Street into a pedestrian roadway, featuring an outdoor movie screen.

W. Estella Johnson, spokeswoman for Cambridge’s Community Development Department, shared her department’s to-do list for the Square at the meeting.

“We need more foot traffic, more late-night dining, more excitement, more people in the Square,” she said.

In response to citizens’ comments, she said she has been trying, though unsuccessfully, to attract a grocery store into the Square.

Johnson also described the city’s plans to place more signs in the Square, so that visitors can find businesses on small side streets. She added that they plan to plant more flowers and shrubbery on unused patches of land.

Denise Jillson, of the HSBA, said she spoke recently with the College’s campus life fellow who told her that undergraduates are looking for more places to hang out in the Square.

“I asked them, ‘What do you do on Saturday night or for a date?’ and they said most students stay on campus or leave the Square,” she said.

Last Thursday, some undergraduates received an e-mail from Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd inviting them to participate in an online University survey “to determine how Harvard affiliates feel about the existing character of Harvard Square.”

Kidd’s e-mail said that the survey “is being coordinated by the University Planning Office on behalf of the Vice President for Administration,” but that “Harvard College supports this survey initiative and encourages your voluntary participation in completing it.”

Kidd declined to comment for this story, referring inquiries to the office of University Vice President for Administration Sally H. Zeckhauser. Zeckhauser’s office referred inquiries to Tanya Iatridis, the acting director of the University Planning Office, who also declined to comment.

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Matthew S. Lebowitz can be reached at mslebow@fas.harvard.edu.