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Protecting, Not Petrifying, Harvard Square

Conservation district designation offers agreeable resolution to development issue

By Zachary R. Heineman, Crimson Staff Writer

On Dec. 18, 2000, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously in favor of creating a Harvard Square Conservation District.

The decision forces property owners in the Square to face review and possible rejection of their plans for development and new construction.

The easy vote is deceptive, however. The final agreement marks the first apparent resolution to a long-time stand-off between opposing forces of development and preservation in the Square.

For many Cambridge residents, maintaining the character and integrity of Harvard Square is non-negotiable.

"We're really talking about the soul of a community," says Elizabeth Kline, co-chair of Friends of Harvard Square, a volunteer citizens' group.

But there has been no consensus on how best to preserve this soul.

Much of the charm of Harvard Square comes from its eclectic buildings and businesses, relics from all eras, residents say.

"Part of the history of the Square is that it is constantly evolving," says Charles Sullivan, director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. "It is not like Beacon Hill trying to preserve the 19th century."

The result is that defenders of Harvard Square have had to tread a fine line.

Too much regulation could freeze Harvard Square into an outdated mold, but some regulation is necessary to stop it from turning into a generic Anytown, U.S.A.

The conservation district solution appears to have provided an answer which satisfies both business owners who hope to preserve their development options and community members who are attached to the recognizable aspects of the Square.

Protecting the Square

In 1995, the redevelopment of the Read Block--which now houses Pacific Sunware and Abercrombie and Fitch--caused neighborhood outcry, leading to the formation of Kline's organization, Friends of Harvard Square, and prompting the City Council to explore the possibility of creating a Harvard Square Historic District.

Like a conservation district, a historic district gives city appointees certain powers over area development. But while the authority of conservation districts comes out of a city ordinance, historic districts are under the auspices of state statute.

The Historic District Study Committee--strongly supported by then-mayor Francis H. Duehay '55--met 52 times in less than three years. But when its proposal for a Harvard Square Historic District came before the City Council last June, it was flat-out rejected.

The Council worried about the bureaucratic nature of the state statute which mandates that even minor building changes be approved by the entire historic district commission. It also considered property owners concerns that private anti-development groups--such as the Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF).--would have too much power under the historic district code.

The Conservation District seems to have united two diametrically opposed forces--property owners' desire for development and the community's resistance to change.

"The Historic Commission has done a good job of working with all the constituencies," Nathans says.

While the differences between a historic and a conservation district are small, they were significant enough to win over the Council--and the property-owners in the Square. Minor building changes can be approved by the director of the Historical Commission--no lengthy process is necessary. And the power of the HSDF as a third-party group is ambiguous in the city ordinance rather than guaranteed.

Finally, an extra gift was given to property owners in the form of an amendment to the Conservation District legislation.

Tonight's City Council meeting will decide whether to significantly downzone much of Cambridge--a prospect which might have greatly reduced Harvard Square development options.

However, property-owners in the Square can rest easy.

With the formation of the Conservation District, the ratio of floor area to potential building square footage for the Square has been frozen at a minimum of three. In other words, even if the Square is downzoned, the ratio will not be reduced below this limit.

"Property owners have gotten a good deal out of the conservation district because it preserved their [zoning]," Kramer says.

For preservationists, little was lost in the move from a historic to a conservation district.

"The Conservation District has all the protections of a historic district," says Sullivan. "For all practical purposes they're the same."

The Resolution

The stated the goal of the Harvard Square Conservation District is "preserving and protecting the remaining historical buildings in Harvard Square while encouraging the architectural diversity that characterizes the area."

Its boundaries extend from the intersection of Mass. Avenue and Mt. Auburn Street on the east to Church Street on the west, containing the rapidly-evolving commercial sector of Harvard Square.

"There really needs to be some historic preservation interests represented in any changes to Harvard Square," says Frank S. Kramer, owner of the Harvard Book Store.

Historic preservation interests in the past have mostly been organized ad hoc as individual developments were proposed. For citizens groups, the conservation district designation provides some measure of formal support for their efforts.

"The Conservation District gives us breathing space and the opportunity to work on projects that are proactive, rather than simply reactive to developers," says Jinny Nathans, president of the HSDF.

For example, her organization has been meeting with the Historic Commission about how best to publicize the rich history of the Square.

A Sticking Point?

However, despite Nathans' optimistic take on the Conservation District, the legal status her group will hold with respect to development in the area remains unclear.

"I don't think they've resolved that completely," Kramer says.

The formation of a historic district would have guaranteed the HSDF the legal standing to appeal any Commission decision that was made on development issues and thus it was rejected by the City Council. Under the Conservation District, the right of appeal is less clear.

But Nathans feels that the door has been left open for the future.

"In my opinion, the Conservation District protects the Defense Fund's right to appeal," she says. "But we really hope that we won't be bringing any more lawsuits."

Gary D. Hammer, public approvals manager for Harvard Planning and Real Estate and a former member of the Conservation District Study Committee, says that while it is unclear whether the Defense Fund can appeal decisions as a formal group, other mechanisms are in place for an effective appeal.

"If nothing else they probably have enough registered voters [10] to sign a petition, which is allowed under the ordinance," Hammer says.

The City Council tabled an amendment to the Conservation District legislation that would have limited standing of appeals for groups like the HSDF.

"The Defense Fund would have had a more problematic attitude toward the Conservation District if the amendment had passed," Nathans says.

Harvard's Role

"We're very supportive of the Conservation District as one of the larger property owners in the Square," says Mary Power, Harvard director of community relations.

Harvard has worked with other Cambridge conservation districts, most notably with the Mid-Cambridge district on the Knafel Center project. In this area, hearings by the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Commission delayed Harvard's building plans by more than a year.

But according to Power, the formation of Conservation District in Harvard Square will have little impact on the way Harvard conducts itself.

Since 1986 Harvard has had an informal agreement allowing the Historic Commission to review changes made to any of its structures listed under the National Register of Historic Buildings.

If anything, the new designation for the Square makes the University's job easier.

"The Historic District creates some predictability because of the guidelines that were established," Power says.

Although Harvard has drawn heat for development in Allston and North Cambridge, it has mostly been commended for how it has handled its holdings in the Square.

"I think that Harvard has done a good job," says Kramer. "They have a strong interest in the appearance of the square since they've been there so long."

McDonalds Next?

It was the entrance of Abercrombie and Fitch and Pacific Sunwear into a prominent Harvard Square location that brought the issue of district designation to the fore.

But Conservation District or not, the city has very little influence over what businesses set up shop. Zoning can regulate use to some extent, but categories are too broad to have any specific impact.

"There's no mechanism for addressing it," says Sullivan. "We don't have any ability to influence who the tenants are in any way."

And now Sprint PCS is taking over the corner that used to be Sage's market.

These changes have raised concern within HSDF and Friends of Harvard Square.

"It is not whether a chain is good or bad, but whether it is contributing to the community," says Kline. "Are they funding local sports teams? Are they part of local owners groups?"

The issue, though, is not one that will be addressed within the forum of the Conservation District.

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