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The Battle Over Harvard’s Square

The University says it is helping its backyard thrive. But in its dealings with local businesses, is it a bully or ally?

By Shifra B. Mincer, Crimson Staff Writer

Three-hundred-and-seventy years ago, Harvard opened up its first buildings in an area surrounded by wood yards and cows. Today, the University is one of the largest landowners in the Square—a disturbing fact to some of its business neighbors.

An entire row of Mass. Ave. shops will shut down next month so that Harvard, the landlord, can renovate the storefronts, along with the graduate student housing units upstairs.

Ferranti-Dege Photographic Store, a Square staple since 1955, already closed its doors on Oct. 13 to allow Harvard Real Estate Services (HRES) to renovate the basement space.

This is not the first time in the University’s history that it has displaced Square businesses to make way for its plans. Harvard claims that these projects help preserve the vitality of the Square and that it strives to protect independent businesses in the area.

But some local business owners vehemently disagree.

“My family has been here for three generations but [the University has] been a bully with family businesses,” says Yale I. Turner, the owner of Vision House Opticians on JFK Street.

His business first opened in the Holyoke Center, but he says his rent was doubled, along with the rent of many other stores in the center during the ’80s to make way for a revamp of the space.

Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations, Mary Power, says that the Holyoke arcade was unsafe and deserted at night, and, in order to revitalize the area, several of the leases were not renewed.

“The idea at the time was to make the arcade a more lively, more comfortable space,” she says.

More recently, in February 2004, Harvard evicted all the retailers from 90 Mt. Auburn St. and demolished two century-old buildings in order to build what is now a Harvard library administration building.

James W. Gray, the associate vice president of HRES, says that these examples do not detract from the University’s mission to encourage local business and its “goal for the Square, which is to have a vibrant and successful Harvard Square.”

Gray says that “people who are paying attention” understand that Harvard is an ally in the battle to keep the Square vibrant.

“The people who aren’t paying attention love to bash Harvard,” he adds. “Harvard has been supporting local businesses in the Square for generations.” According to Gray, the University currently owns 30 storefronts in the Square, almost all of which house independent businesses.

“We don’t rent to banks. We don’t rent to chain stores. We accept significantly less rent for our space than we could,” Power says. “We worked very hard to support local independent businesses at significant cost to Harvard.”

‘THE GOOD GUYS’

Some of Harvard’s tenants say the University has supported them during difficult times.

Betsy Siggins, the executive director of Club Passim, gives her landlord much of the credit for keeping the folk music club on Palmer Street alive.

“[Harvard has] been very, very supportive of Passim. They value what we bring to Harvard Square and to the community,” she says. “They are the good guys in our opinion. They have made it possible for a folk music club like ours to really flourish in the Square.”

The former owner of The Grolier Poetry Shop on Plympton Street, Louisa Solano, also credits Harvard with helping her store survive when it was struggling.

Frank Kramer, the owner of the Harvard Book Store next door to Grolier, also believes the University, which is also his landlord, has been very supportive over the years.

“They don’t charge top dollar rent,” he says. “When we have wanted to do things like expand, they have fostered that expansion.”

Kramer is also the co-chair of Cambridge Local First, an organization dedicated to promoting local businesses instead of chains, and says that Harvard has been supportive of his organization’s goals.

“They have supported long term tenants. If a long-term tenant has wanted to stay they do everything they can to help him stay,” he says.

“They are actively looking for small, locally-operated businesses to come into stores when they have them available.”

THE UNWRITTEN PACT

There’s an “unwritten pact” between the University and the community that retailers will be allowed to use the ground-floor space in Harvard-owned buildings, according to Pebble Gifford, the vice president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF), a volunteer organization founded in 1979 that works to preserve the character of Harvard Square.

According to Gifford, the “biggest battle” with the University is maintaining the pact.

When the University built the new library building on Mt. Auburn Street, across the street from the Garage, the original plan did not include any ground floor retail space, Gifford says. She adds that the University said it was concerned about the security of rare manuscripts in the building.

When community members and the HSDF negotiated with Harvard, the University agreed to put a store in a “tiny place in one corner,” Gifford says. Eventually, Harvard agreed to designate much of the floor to a store and the Globe Corner Book Store moved in.

Power gives an alternative version of the original plans for the building.

She says various options were discussed, including a possible gallery space, a Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) location, or a different Harvard retail space, such as the Credit Union.

“There were a variety of Harvard uses that we were considering but the defense fund worked very hard to encourage an active retail space that was not specific to the Harvard community,” Power says.

Gray says that Harvard shares the view “that ground floor vitality is very important to Harvard Square.”

In the case of the University library building, he says, “We were able to work well with the Globe Corner Bookstore for this great place to work with their needs.”

A WRINKLE IN TIME

In recent years, however, some of the Square’s long-time businesses, including those in Harvard-owned spots, have shut down.

Last summer, before The Globe Corner Bookstore opened in the library building, the store closed down after 18 years at the corner of Church and Palmer Streets—a space owned by Harvard. When the store closed, co-owner Patrick Carrier told The Crimson that his lease had expired and he could not afford the new lease that Harvard had offered on the same terms.

Carrier said he countered with an offer that would have reduced the rent, but Harvard did not respond.

As with other Square closings, there were other factors at work. The travel industry was suffering after 9/11 and construction on Church Street, including scaffolding, was detrimental to his business, he said at the time.

Denise A. Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), says the evolving make-up of the Square is “natural.”

She says if the local community is not supporting a store or an institution, it will go out of business.

“It’s a natural organic process for institutions to come and go,” Jillson says.

But Gifford thinks that sometimes the market shouldn’t just run its course.

“Organic change means out goes an independent local store and in comes a chain,” she says. “The Square has lost its soul.”

Another bookstore that closed in recent years, Pangloss, also shuttered its doors in a Harvard-owned space at 65 Mount Auburn Street.

“They were at a point in their business that they were changing and Harvard is not always in the position where they can help people stay,” Power says.

Kramer of the Harvard Book Store agreed that Harvard was not to blame in the store’s closing.

“It’s competition and not because of Harvard University,” he says, adding that other bookshops, including Words Worth have also closed down.

As for Ferranti-Dege, owner Tony C. Ferranti ’46 echoed this sentiment when his photography store closed on Oct. 13. He said he was closing his business because it was hard to compete in a new age of digital photography. Since Harvard needed to renovate the basement of his store this October, Ferranti moved out on that date.

“I don’t want Harvard Real Estate to get a bum rap for this,” he said at the time.

Zinnia Jewelry, Toscanini’s Ice Cream, and Gnomon Copy will close on Jan. 1 to make way for the renovations.

But Power says that store owners knew to expect this.

“The city was brought into this discussion way back. City officials have known we are doing this for years,” she says.

Power says that Harvard brought up the discussion very early in order to lay out the options for store owners and plan the renovations in the least hurtful way possible.

Although Ferranti did not blame Harvard and its renovations of the space for his closing, many local residents saw the incident to be a result of what they perceived as Harvard’s “bully tactics.”

“I have a lot of issues with Harvard because it’s a big behemoth that throws its weight around,” said Marilee B. Meyer in the camera store on its closing day. “[Harvard’s] needs are much greater than the dynamic of the community.”

A BULLY OR AN ALLY

The HSDF and the HSBA view Harvard’s dealings in the Square very differently. Gifford says the University wields too much power in the Square.

“They are landlords and they have a lot of clout and a lot of power,” Gifford says. “They get what they want from the City Council, and I don’t think they are very sensitive to the resident’s needs.”

But Jillson of the HSBA says this is a common misconception.

“There is perception and there is reality,” she says. “If you know how much money Harvard has given to the city in order to help with construction work, and the investment they have made, not only financially, but also offering great advice as a community partner. That’s incredibly important to us.”

The University recently gave $200,000 to the HSBA, matching funds from businesses, in order to improve the marketing of Harvard Square and attract more shoppers, according to Power.

“We really appreciate that they are around the table and that they bring their expertise and don’t necessarily exert their influence when they could,” Jillson says.

“When they come to the table, they come as an equal partner with other community groups. They could be an entity unto themselves, but they choose not to do that.”

In the end, Harvard’s Gray says that it’s up to customers to determine which stores will succeed in the Square.

“There are a lot of people who are upset when a landmark leaves the Square, but some people complain about those places closing but haven’t spent a dollar there in forty years,” he says. “The people who don’t patronize the stores, their opinion hardly rings true to me.”

—Staff writer Shifra B. Mincer can be reached at smincer@fas.harvard.edu.

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