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Beautifying Harvard Square

After years of construction, the square might get its biggest facelift yet

By Kerry M. Flynn, Crimson Staff Writer

For the Class of 2012, the banging of heavy machinery and the dust of construction have been a part of everyday life in Harvard Square. Since this year’s graduating class arrived on campus, the Square has received a series of drastic face lifts.

This roadwork and improvement is part of a long-term effort to beautify Harvard Square that all stems from “Polishing the Trophy,” a plan published in the late 1990s for refurbishing Cambridge’s preeminent hub of tourism and intellectual life.

In the past decade, this beautification process has seen collaboration between the city, the Harvard Square Business Association, and Harvard—all acting as what Thomas J. Lucey, Harvard’s director of community relations for Cambridge, refers to as “ongoing stewards of the Square.”

But though these stewards have accomplished much in the past several years, community members have now proposed a still more ambitious plan that would bring the most visible change yet to Harvard Square. If adopted, it will transform Sheldon Cohen Island, the stretch of red brick home to Out of Town News, the Pit, and the MBTA station.

Made public just this week , this project—if approved by the city—would check off one of the last boxes remaining on a list that Cambridge has used to guide its improvement of Harvard Square since 2006.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

The city government, Harvard Square Business Association, and the University have spent the past decade carefully planning the improvement of public space in Harvard Square.

The effort, informally known as the Harvard Square beautification project, was conceived in the late 1990s. At that time, Harvard Square had not seen major construction since the 1980s, when the Harvard Square MBTA stop was redone.

Beautification first became a topic of discussion when city officials began to seriously consider making Harvard Square a Business Improvement District, a designation signalling an area’s need for revitalization.

Though the city ultimately did not designate Harvard Square as a BID, its consideration inspired John P. DiGiovanni, president of Trinity Property Management, and other Square business owners to take a hard look at the Square’s aesthetic and structural deficiencies.

These discussions culminated in the creation of a booklet of plans called “Polishing the Trophy: A Strategic Plan for Competitive Advantage and Asset Preservation in Harvard Square,” which was presented to the Cambridge City Council in January 1998.

“Harvard Square is a trophy, and it is up to those who participate in its daily life to keep it polished,” the report stated. The preliminary plan called for improved streets, sidewalks, and lighting.

After this presentation, the city appropriated $500,000 and appointed a 15-member committee to study the public space in the Square and create a master plan of improvements, according to DiGiovanni.

The committee included business owners, city officials, and representatives from Harvard University, including Lucey.

While the construction projects would directly affect Harvard, the University decided that it would be a collaborator but not a leader in the process.

“We want to be a stakeholder, not the stakeholder,” Lucey says.

From 2000 to 2004, the committee hammered out its plans for beautification and improvement. In 2005, it handed over the reins to the city government, which then spent the following year soliciting feedback from community members.

The series of public meetings concluded with the creation of a document known as the Harvard Square Initiative.

“I’ve been pleased and impressed with the diligence and the detail that was put in those four-plus years of meetings,” says DiGiovanni, who has played a major role in the beautification process since its inception.

“We need to treat it, in my opinion, as good stewards, as the historic, urban, authentic center that it is,” he adds.

BRICK BY BRICK

Thus far, the beautification process has consisted of three phases of construction.

The first phase, in 2006, made the most-needed improvements: the repavement of several busy streets and the creation of a brick plaza in front of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

“Before, that was wide and open. There was no easy access to cross. By adding that island, it helped pedestrian improvement and improved the aesthetics of area,” says Katherine F. Watkins, supervising engineer at the Cambridge Department of Public Works.

Harvard contributed $1.3 million to help jump-start the beautification process.

University leaders felt especially compelled to fund the project during this phase since it significantly affected students’ safety, Lucey says.

After the first phase was completed in the fall of 2007, the second part of the improvement process—the construction of a “super crosswalk” across JFK Street in the heart of Harvard Square—commenced shortly thereafter.

Once the crosswalk was completed in 2008, the city took a step back to consider its next move.

After much internal consulting, according to Watkins, the city launched the most recent phase of construction in 2010.

This third phase, which will be completed in the next few weeks, included the repaving of Plympton, Linden, Dunster and portions of JFK Street. It also features the relaying of the brick sidewalks and updating of street lamps along those streets.

All of these improvements have had to go in front of the Cambridge Historical Commission for approval, since Harvard Square is designated a conservation district.

According to Charles M. Sullivan, the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, the sidewalks were one of the most controversial aspects of the project, inspiring much discussion about building materials. While bricks do meet all federal and state requirements for accessibility, some advocated for concrete sidewalks.

Laura E. Donohue ’85, the owner of Bob Slate Stationer, says that she appreciates the classic look of the granite and brick in Harvard Square. “It makes the Square look updated and historic at the same time, a vintage, timeless look. I would not want cement sidewalks. I love the bricks.”

She and her fellow brick advocates eventually won out.

Sullivan says that the update of Palmer Street just off of Brattle Street, which was part of the first phase, was also a hot-button issue. City planners wanted to replace the street’s bricks and cobblestones with decorative pavement designed by a New York-based artist, a plan that gained approval only after much discussion.

Cambridge officials have been mindful of keeping the community apprised of the construction projects. Regular emails have informed local residents and business owners of progress and plans.

“I feel like they’ve done a great job at achieving more of a balance then they’ve done in the past, keeping interest for residents, not everything geared to tourists,” says Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office for Tourism.

PLANNING FOR A PIT STOP

With three phases of construction complete, Cambridge will continue street improvements but also take on larger public spaces left untouched by the beautification process so far.

In phase four of the plan that has long been in progress, the city will improve the portion of Mount Auburn Street between JFK and Holyoke Streets by repaving the street surface and laying new sidewalks.

In the past year, members of the former planning committee have also convened again to devise the most ambitious beautification project to date: a complete overhaul of Sheldon Cohen Island.

This new plan—the brainchild of DiGiovanni, Harvard Square Business Association Executive Director Denise A. Jillson, and other community members—would realize goals set down by the Harvard Square Initiative, the 2005-06 document issued after a year of community meetings.

The Initiative proposed the creation of a high-tech visitor center and called for “an interactive and automated digital display in a central Harvard Square location that provides visitor and event info.”

The current proposal recommends that the Out of Town News kiosk be converted to a glass-walled information center with interactive features like those laid out in the earlier document.

The plan also suggests that the Pit be spruced up with stadium seating, shrubbery, LED floor lights, a flat-screen display, and patio tables and chairs.

The new plan, if adopted, will bring much-needed attention to an area that has not seen major improvement in the past two decades, Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy says.

“That’s a focal point of Harvard Square that needs some sprucing up,” Healy says.

Though the plan’s developers have approached City Council members, the city has yet to officially adopt the proposal or set aside funding for it, according to Healy.

Despite the major construction projects ahead, Harvard Square stakeholders have said they do not expect the essence of Harvard Square to change dramatically.

“It’s like Harvard. It doesn’t really change,” Donohue says.

—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at kflynn@college.harvard.edu.

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Harvard SquareCambridge City CouncilCambridgeYear in ReviewCommencement 2012

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