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You Can't Have It Your Way in Harvard Square; Local Laws Restrict Fast Food Establishments

By Matthew A. Saal

The biggest adjustment of freshman year may not be getting used to new roommates, missing home or taking first exams. Instead, it may be fast food withdrawal.

Fast food restaurants are conspicuously absent from Harvard Square, but, despite city-wide zoning restrictions, they flourish at nearby Central and Porter Squares. In most cities Harvard Square would be the exception, but in Cambridge it's the rule.

The law says fast food proprietors requiring more than 1750 square feet or more than five employees in a 24-hour period must apply for a special city permit. Obtaining the permit requires appearing before a hearing of the Board of Zoning Appeals and community groups as well as satisfying guidelines including the upkeep of the physical and visual character of the area, according to Fester W. Barber, a Cambridge planning official.

Nearby Exceptions

After six months of negotiating, the MacDonalds at Porter Square got the go-ahead to build largely because of the existence of a parking lot at the location and a pledge to collect litter around the store.

Efforts to build in Harvard Square, however, have met with vocal community opposition, according to Gladys Gifford, one of the founders of the Harvard Square Defense Fund.

This outspoken community opposition combined with high rents in the areas near the University discourage applicants from applying for zoning exemptions.

According to the owner of the Porter Square MacDonalds, Marty George. "The major restriction in the Harvard Square area is the rent...the cost per square foot is very expensive."

But a more prohibitive factor may be community outspokenness. "The neighborhood group in Porter Square did not come out against us as they would have in Harvard Square," said Michael Kuronen, a MacDonalds regional executive, explaining the national chain's decision to build at Porter Square.

Residents have the opportunity to speak out during the zoning permit process, which includes several hearings. The board, a nine-member panel made up of Cambridge citizens, has the authority to issue the permit. Before the board, opponents and proponents of potential stores--including the Harvard Square Defense Fund and the Harvard Square Business Association--air their opinions on proposals.

Local Character

"Our motivation is a concern for the character of the area," said Hugh Russell, an architect and member of the zoning body. "We were concerned that Harvard Square was changing to be like other parts of the country," he added.

Russel advocated granting the special permit to the Porter Square MacDonalds in part because fast-food places, especially McDonalds, have changed over the past decade, he said. "They now realize they don't need the same, totally incongruous visual presence in order to sell their hamburgers."

MacDonalds' developers redesigned the Porter Square store after the board criticized their initial model for the storefront, said George. As it stands now, the store epitomizes MacDonalds "new look"--replete with popular wall hangings and a food bar where people cating alone can sit and, most importantly, without protruding golden arches.

But such design innovations probably would not be enough to quell the aesthetic fears of Harvard Square residents. "There's a place for MacDonalds in society, but they don't have to be everywhere," Gifford said. "It would be a shame to have Harvard Square go the same way as other urban areas and becoming homogenized."

Competition

But according to City Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci, talk of aesthetic appeal is only a cloak for Harvard Square businessmen's fear of competition with national chains.

"Fast food places are getting classier and classier," said Vellucci, explaining that places like MacDonalds do not negatively affect an area's character.

"The greedy businessmen just want to keep other business out. They're afraid these chains will take their business away," said the outspoken East Cambridge councilor.

Gifford disagreed, saying that the discouragement of fast food places is part of a larger concern about the "quality of life in the Square."

Concerns about traffic and crime problems, for example, motivated the Fund's efforts to block the building of a Dunkin' Donuts in Harvard Square in the mid-1970's. "We studied the Dunkin' Donuts in Porter Square and counted something like 40 or 50 trucks stopped there between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m. Can you imagine that in Harvard Square?" she added. The rate of "incidents of trouble" was also augmented at the two stores which were open all night, she said.

"It is not a convenience issue, it's what's best for the area," Gifford said. The existence of national fast food chains would mean the end of Square mainstays such as Bartley's and Elsie's, she added.

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