Yes, I Want Fries with That
Cantabrigians crave fast food
In Harvard Square, a good burger is hard to find. You can order “The Viagra” at Mr. Bartley’s, but he charges $9.79 for his help. You can savor “hand-packed” beef at b.good, but be warned: Real food is real slow. You can chow down at Flat Patties, but you better enjoy a detour. The Square lacks a cheap, quick, close alternative. In other words, it lacks a McDonald’s.
Or a KFC for that matter. Cambridge’s zoning laws spook fast-food chains from the Square. Section 11.31 of the Zoning Ordinance, for instance, demands that a joint look “compatible with…other buildings…in the particular location”; fulfill “a need for such a service in the neighborhood”; and attract “patrons primarily from walk in trade as opposed to drive in [trade].” So you can sue it for almost anything.
And this fact I lament. It is a pity the city reviles fast food.
True, some chains have snuck in. If you’re eating a burrito right now, you’re probably at Qdoba. But you could’ve been eating a Frosty. Over the years, Cambridge has blocked chains like Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Boston Chicken from the Square. Others—like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Legal Seafood, and IHOP—have provoked uproars.
Yet this hamburglar is remorseless. “I’m thrilled there are no fast food restaurants in Harvard Square,” Craig Kelley, a member of the city council, wrote in an e-mail. “They tend to lead to much more trash on the streets.” Gladys Gifford, former president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, agreed: “I live a block from Harvard Square and there isn’t a day that goes by that somebody hasn’t picked up a coffee or donut at Dunkin’ Donuts and they’ve dropped it on my lawn.” Gifford also blamed Dunkin’ Donuts for more traffic. “If you stay there long enough, you’ll see a stream of illegal parking; these people run in and get their coffee,” she told me.
But Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer on economics, disagreed. “It could be that if you allow for a Dunkin’ Donuts, there will be more traffic, but that’s an indication that more people want to shop there,” he told me. “You could assess Dunkin’ Donuts for the litter they create. That is a reasonable policy, but outright banning it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of consumers at all.”
Au contraire, preservationists retort: Consumers dislike chains. “You can go to Abu Dhabi or Copley Square and see the same stores, which takes away some of Harvard Square’s appeal. It has Algiers…We don’t believe you come to Harvard Square to go to Starbucks,” Gifford said.
But if people preferred mom-and-pop stores, they would patronize them. “The fact that a quick burger joint wants to locate here means they think they can earn more revenue...that’s an indication of what the people who frequent the square would like to buy,” said Miron. If they thought they would lose money, “Starbucks and McDonald’s wouldn’t come here.”
Still, preservationists are wary. “So we should let the free market and Adam Smith reign?” Gifford asked. “I don’t think that’s wise. Look at the mess Adam Smith and Alan Greenspan got us into.”
And look at the mess zoning got the Square into. In the middle of the twentieth century, preservationists decided that red brick was cute, so they pushed developers to use it in new buildings and renovations. But by the 1990s, they were sick of it, so they prodded builders to use other materials. As a reporter for this newspaper wrote, Cantabrigians realized, “There is such a thing as too much red brick.”
Zoning laws reveal an unpleasant truth: Government by the people is government by the vocal. The people who squawk impose their preferences on the people who cave. And often, those preferences are whims. In this case, the people who want to feel quaint while frequenting the Square impose their preferences on students, who are too transient to oppose them. Sure, students like funky restaurants. But sometimes they need to grab lunch before class, and Central Square is a little out of the way.
No, McDonald’s exclusion from the Square is not tragic. But neither is Dunkin’ Donuts’ inclusion. Cambridge should lower its barriers to chains. And preservationists should cheer up. All they need is a happy meal.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.