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A plan to raze four historic but rotting wood-frame buildings in the heart of Harvard Square and replace them with a new shopping arcade is drawing fire from area preservation groups.
But some say the development proposal is the only way to save some of Cambridge's most valuable real estate from the devastating toll which age has taken on it.
The plan, proposed by Cambridge Savings Bank and conceived by the architectural firm Stubbins Associates, calls for the demolition of the four century-old structures in the heart of Harvard Square. The buildings currently contain two restaurants, the Wursthaus and The Tasty, and many empty storefronts.
The plan would be to link several alleys behind the buildings and connect them to at least two other buildings in the Square already owned by the bank, opening up 12,000 additional square feet of prime retail space.
"We proposed to link two alley ways that currently exist together to Harvard Square by a new connector which we call an arcade," said Easley Hemner, president of The Stubbins Associates architectural firm in Cambridge. "There would be cafes on the outside, retail space on the ground level, and offices above."
But to make the plan work, Cambridge Savings Bank first must secure demolition permits to raze the historic buildings, which are located across from Out-of-Town News in Harvard Square.
Given the resolve of some local preservationists--not to mention the historical significance of the buildings--obtaining those permits might not be so easy.
All four of the structures are included on the National Register of Historic Places. The earliest--the Joseph Reed House--dates from about 1780, while Farwell's store, at the main intersection, was built in 1792. The four separate, three-story structures were connected behind a single store front in 1896, Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission told the Boston Globe.
"I am not pleased that these historic buildings are going to be torn down," City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 said. "I'm also not pleased that this plan was not announced before having meetings with citizen and community groups like the Harvard Square Defense Fund. So I think two things; that the plan is flawed and that the process is flawed."
"Anybody who wants to tear down historic buildings in Harvard Square has a lot to answer for," Duehay said.
James Ingram, the president of Cambridge Savings Bank, was out of the office yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
But Hemner, who designed the plans for the proposed construction, said he had been in the process of "quiet discussions" with the Harvard Square Defense Fund and the Cambridge Historic Commission well before news of the proposal was leaked to local media last week.
"We had hoped that we could have a lot of these discussions before it got out into the public forum," Hemner said. "But I'm still cautiously optimistic."
What may ultimately save the proposal from defeat at the hands of preservationists is that several parts of the buildings in question have deteriorated to such an extent that they have been rendered unsafe.
"I do know that the preexisting building is in serious, serious physical condition, uninhabitable in areas," said Kristin Sudholz, Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association. "I don't think people understand the level of disrepair the building is in. There are areas of that building that are considered unsafe.
Hemner said his firm considered the possibility of saving the buildings, but "It seemed that the buildings are in such a deteriorated state that it's hard to imagine trying to salvage them."
While Sudholz acknowledges that she has not seen the actual plans for the development, she was quick to say that Cambridge Savings Bank "has always been a good neighbor in Harvard Square."
Sudholz cited a recent renovation project carried out by the bank on Dunster Street as an example of the bank's "commitment to the architectural integrity of Harvard Square."
"[The bank] does have a good reputation of trying to do something that's tasteful, appropriate and that fits in with integrity of the Square, and I don't think they would be handling this any differently," she said. "They're extremely community conscious and community supportive."
Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 yesterday sounded a note of caution and reiterated the importance of preserving Cambridge's architectural heritage.
"[Cambridge Savings Bank] ha[s] floated a proposal and now they're getting reaction to that," Reeves said. "It's very clear to me that Harvard Square is one of the most historic squares in the world. Now Paris doesn't just go tearing down the Eiffel Tower. We have to understand that this is a city with an architectural history and we have to preserve that."
Pebble Gifford, President of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, a watchdog group that has opposed previous developments in the Square, could not be reached for comment.
But Frank Cardullo, owner of the Wursthaus and a 53-year veteran of the Square, said the character of the area is changing.
"The Square is not the Square that it once was," Cardullo said. "It's an entirely different environment than what we had before. I've seen a lot of things happen to Harvard Square, but lately I'm not so sure the things that are happening are good ones."
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