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Cambridge Mulls Bid For Prized Square Site

By Anna M. Friedman, Crimson Staff Writer

The city may have more say in the makeup of Harvard Square if councillors manage to orchestrate Cambridge’s purchase of a coveted piece of property from the MBTA.

Last night, councillors discussed the possibility of buying the conductors’ building and surrounding land behind the Harvard Square Hotel on Mount Auburn Street and converting it into a Cambridge museum or a site for local small businesses.

City Manager Robert W. Healy reported at last night’s council meeting that he would have to look further into the feasibility of a deal before making any recommendations, especially since the MBTA intends to retain “right of way” rights to the property.

Councillors questioned the MBTA’s competence in managing the site and its concern for the public good. They called for city involvement in determining the future of the property.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons said she wants the city to participate in talks regarding the sale of the property even if it cannot afford to purchase the land itself.

“I’m looking for aggressive behavior on the part of the city,” she said. “I don’t want us to lose this opportunity.”

Although discussions are still in the preliminary stages, Simmons said that a museum about Cambridge would fulfill a need in the community and fit well in historic Harvard Square. She added that the city could also buy the space and then rent it out at a relatively low cost to small businesses to encourage local economic development and counter the proliferation of chains in the Square.

While councillors and Healy unanimously expressed excitement about the possibility of purchasing the prime land, the city manager sparred with Councillor Craig A. Kelley when seeking the Council’s routine approval of funding for the Cambridge Public Schools (CPS).

Healy, along with CPS Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn and other CPS representatives, presented the budget matters to the council for final approval. They had already been developed and approved by school officials and the School Committee in early March.

The Committee had earmarked $450,000 for the School Debt Stabilization Fund, which will cushion the system if it faces future deficits, $1.1 million for technology improvements, and $944,770 for various facility maintenance projects, equipment, and a marketing survey.

School Committee Member Nancy Walser called last night’s procedures a formality.

“It’s pretty much housekeeping,” she said.

But Kelley grilled Healy and Fowler-Finn on the necessity of the funding, repeatedly asking whether the money could be used instead to fund programs to improve students’ reading levels. “When [constituents] see expenditures, they’re going to ask me why,” Kelley said.

Fowler-Finn explained that the specific plans were “very well detailed and outlined” before they were approved, and insisted that building repairs were as necessary in the long term for improving students’ reading abilities as direct funding for that purpose.

Following the terse exchange, the council passed the School Debt Stabilization Fund allocation unanimously, while Kelley remained the sole councillor to vote against the other funding measures.

—Staff writer Anna M. Friedman can be reached at amfriedm@fas.harvard.edu.

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