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The JFK Center and Harvard Square: At the Crossroad of Future Shock

By Mark C. Frazier

Seniors ought to take a good look at Harvard Square before they graduate--within four years, it won't resemble much of anything they know now.

Streets are likely to be re-routed. The MBTA Redline may extend to West Cambridge. The John F. Kennedy Library Center, to be built where buses now park across from Kirkland and Eliot Houses, will draw a million new visitors a year to the Square. High rise buildings will stand over Mt. Auburn and Boylston Streets, and a mall will occupy half a block adjacent to Holyoke Center.

The driving force behind the changes is the John F. Kennedy Library Center--and the mood it has created among Harvard Square businessmen, residents and civic groups approximates future shock.


Francis H. Duehay, dean of Admissions and Studies in the Graduate School of Education, local resident, and City Council member, thinks the Kennedy Center "will almost certainly increase congestion to a barbaric extent."

Nancy Brigham, a member of the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee, sees the Center leading to rent hikes which will drive low and middle income residents out from surrounding areas.

Cyrus Harvey, owner of the Harvard Square Theater and a leading force behind a local group called Planning For People, sees the Kennedy Center as a "total disaster"--if nearby neighborhoods aren't protected from swarms of visitors and the business district is not integrated with the Center.

Robert Bowyer, head of Cambridge's Department of Planning and Development, worries that the character of the Square may change, turning into that of a tourist center.

Of course, most recognize that the Kennedy Center--a complex including a library, archives, the Kennedy School of Government, the Institute of Politics, and probable "related structures"--may prove to be the greatest blessing to the economic vitality of the Square in this century. But it doesn't ease a fear that the ingredients of success may be botched in the mixing, turning the Square into a nightmarish fusion of traffic clots, tickytac and parking lots, thereby destroying: the small stores and whatever atmosphere attends a college town.

Expected Changes

Changes have been expected ever since the trustees of the Kennedy Corporation--the group overseeing construction of the Center--announced their plan in the mid sixties to move onto the MBTA site. A year ago, the Cambridge Planning Office began assembling a seven-volume master plan to cope with the difficulties thought likely to arise.

Volumes I thought V of the Plan are nearly complete. They review the success of previous planning efforts, planning philosophies, raw census data, traffic flow, and the visual environment of the Square.

Volume VI and VII concerned with the issues peculiar to Harvard Square and the actual plan itself, will not be ready until July 1. But through conversations with Planning Department officials, the following proposals seem likely to emerge in some form:

* Extension of the MBTA subway lime out to Fresh Pond or another point near Alewife Brook Parkway, Traffic studies--largely complete--show that most Mass Ave traffic has at least one endpoint in Cambridge, making extended rapid transit feasible.

* Elimination of some streets and redirection of others, Surprisingly, the planners say, traffic can frequently be handled better on a smaller number of streets because the number of intersections and junctions declines. Planning officials also believe that introducing one-way streets where two-way streets now stand would help to smooth traffic flow.

* Improvement of parking facilities. Parking for the expected surge of tourists will be provided largely by a lot, possibly underground, on the Library site. A $225,000 study is currently underway to explore the feasibility of such a parking lot, as well as an underground garage at the Cambridge Common.

The completed plan will be submitted to the City Council after the Kennedy Corporation reviews it.

Outlines of the JFK Center itself are somewhat more cloudy. About two acres of the 11-acre site will be turned over to Harvard for the Kennedy School of Government. A large plaza, to be called Commonwealth plaza in recognition of Massachusett's grant of the MBTA land, will extend over much of the area. At least 600 parking spaces, more likely 1000, will be provided by the Center. The ceremonial entrance to the Center will open at the corner of Memorial Drive and Boylston St.

Still less certain are plans for the Center's "related structures." Other Presidential Libraries have explored profitable sidelines such as offering onsite concessions to hotels, stores, restaurants, and apartment developers.

A task force of Cambridge civic leaders, businessmen, and residents has been poring over the forms such related structures might take for the past month, and will report their proposals to the Kennedy Corporation and I.M. Pei, architect for the Center, by July 1.

Helen Keyes, head of the Kennedy planning group, says that plans for the related structure will be scrapped if taskforce or community reaction is grossly unfavorable.

One of the possible forms a related structure might take--that of high-rise luxury housing--would almost certainly draw sharp criticism from Cambridge residents. In view of the shortage of low-income housing, many would view luxury apartments as a slap at Cambridge's poorer tenants. And others would protest the protrusion of another tall building near the river.

Mechanical problems, moreover, might defeat a high-rise building from the start--Bowyer points out that building on the marshy MBTA site is little different than building in the Charles River.

But at least two informed sources have said that luxury high-rise housing is contemplated by Kennedy Corporation officials.

Whether high-rise buildings do go up on the Kennedy site or not, definite plans are underway for at least one-high-rise building in the Harvard Square area. At the old Baird-Atomic site across from the Harvard Square Post Office, a speculator has developed plans for a 19-story building, and has already received necessary permits to begin excavation. Planning Office officials report that the developer, Kanovas Corporation, is considering construction of a Holiday Inn on the site.

Two blocks away, on Boylston St., another high-rise structure appears imminent. Soil engineers, contracted by Cambridge landlord Max Wasserman, are testing the peat and clay subsoil to determine what size structure the ground can economically support. The land is zoned both for office space and housing; given the relative surplus of office space in the Boston area, the choice will probably be housing.

One of the engineers guesses that ten stories would be a probable height for the structure. Wasserman, however, insists that he has no idea about what will be constructed, or even when he'll decide.

Leading Edge

To date, Wasserman projects have been on the leading edge of Harvard Square's transformation.

Rent hikes from 100 to 400 per cent have driven over 18 small businesses from Wasserman property. Renovation--exterior and interior--of buildings along Mass Ave., Mt. Auburn, and Boylston Streets has updated some of Harvard Square's oldest buildings. And Wasserman has pioneered in developing unified designs for abutting stores, such as Cahaly's and Tommy's Lunch.

Wasserman's most ambitious Harvard Square development, currently underway, consists of changing a sizeable garage at the corner of Mt. Auburn and Boylston Streets into a shopping mall. The mall, tentatively to be called "The Garage," will house specialty and craft shops, and cover half a block. A pedestrian thoroughfare will connect Boylston St. to Duster St. Work on the Garage has been in progress since last winter, and the mall should open for occupancy sometime next year.

The effect of the Kennedy Center, then, will clearly be staggering. It has already fueled a construction boom of tremendous proportions--a boom which will look feeble when compared to the commercial explosion expected to attend the Center's opening. Tax weary Cantabridgeans are likely to welcome an easing of the tax burden, and some consumers may prefer modernized shopping areas.


Equally clearly, the problems are awesome. The character of the Square--already becoming more commercial and chain-store oriented--will move progressively away from book stores and coffee shops. Parking will become harder--by how much, no one is sure. Driving through the Square will probably become a chore of awesome proportions. Tenants will have to bear higher land values, which will ultimately translate into higher rents, and live with an unfamiliar sky-line. Pedestrian traffic will probably swell by half or two thirds.

But, barring acts of God or a radical takeover of city government, the transformation of Harvard Square is unstoppable. Whether the Class of '72 spends its fifth reunion in a honky-tonk tourist trap, or a thriving, accessible, commercially diverse Harvard Square, will be known quite soon

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