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Hong Kong Billionaire Buys Up Harvard Square Real Estate

By Ivan B. K. Levingston and Celeste M. Mendoza, Crimson Staff Writers

Billionaire Hong Kong investor and Harvard School of Public Health alumnus Gerald L. Chan has made waves in Harvard Square in recent months with purchases of Square real estate totalling more than $100 million.

Chan’s acquisitions include the property at Winthrop Square, which houses Grendel’s Den and the recently closed UpStairs on the Square, a recently vacated American Express building, and the stretch of property from 18 to 28 JFK St., which includes UNO’s and Papyrus.

One of Chan’s most recent purchases is 39 JFK St., the former home of Leo’s Place Diner and the American Express office, both of which closed after the transfer of ownership. According to an article in Banker and Tradesman, Chan paid $33.15 million for the property.

HONG KONG TO HARVARD

Real estate is nothing new for Chan, who is a non-executive director at Hang Lung Properties Limited, one of the largest real estate companies in Hong Kong, alongside his brother and chairman Ronnie C. Chan. Valued at $2.95 billion, the brothers are ranked 17th on Forbes magazine’s “Hong Kong’s 50 Richest” list.

According to the Banker and Tradesman article, Chan made his purchases through a series of shell companies, which are all connected to Morningside Group, Chan’s investment company.

Julie F. Rafferty, associate vice dean for communications at the HSPH, said that Chan has remained involved with his alma mater since his graduation in 1979.

“Gerald Chan is an HSPH alumnus who has spoken at HSPH classes and events...and his message has inspired many here at the school. Because he has been an extremely popular speaker, students asked him to be Commencement speaker in 2012,” Rafferty wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Chan’s Morningside Group established the Morningside Professorship in Radiobiology at the John B. Little Center for Radiation Science and Environmental Health at HSPH in 2012, according to the group’s website.

Similar to his connections to HSPH, Chan has had ties to Harvard Square since his days as a student and recently purchased a home on Brattle St. According to Denise A. Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, Chan has fond memories of his time in Harvard Square, and wants to work with the community.

“They have expressed their desire to be great community partners and thus far have proven themselves to be just that,” Jillson said.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Despite the exciting changes brought about by the transitions in ownership, many of Chan’s purchases have been followed by the departure of longtime tenants.

“The market is what the market is,” Jillson said. “Any purchaser and any developer can pay whatever they deem appropriate.”

Iconic Cambridge bar and restaurant UpStairs on the Square was the first establishment to shut down after Chan’s acquisitions of property. After 31 years of business, the restaurant announced its closing soon after Chan purchased the property at Winthrop Square, and restaurant owners decided not to renew their lease.

While former co-owner of UpStairs on the Square Mary-Catherine Deibel said Chan’s purchase of the property presented a logical time for her to close her establishment. She said she is excited to see what the future of the space holds.

UpStairs on the Square, a New American and Italian restaurant, has recently announced its closure this year.
UpStairs on the Square, a New American and Italian restaurant, has recently announced its closure this year. By Jennifer Y Yao

According to Boston Restaurant Talk, a new farm-to-table eatery called Parsnip is slated to open in UpStairs on the Square’s place.

“I think it’s great that the building is staying an indepently owned restaurant,” Deibel said. “It will bring vitality to the Square and, based on what I see so far, the restaurant will be high quality and interesting.”

Similarly, after nine years in the square, Indian bistro Tamarind Bay was forced to close its doors when the restaurant’s rent doubled following Chan’s purchase of the property at 75 Winthrop St.

The space will be occupied by Night Market, a Japanese restaurant operated by Gerald Chan’s son Ash Chan, an entrepreneur who previously owned and operated the liquid nitrogen ice cream shop Churn2.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

In spite of all the closures, Chan said he is working to preserve the culture of Harvard Square.

Not all of Chan’s properties are transferring tenants. Grendel’s Den, the bar and restaurant located at 81 Winthrop St., has no plans to change occupancy. According to Kari Kuelzer, co-owner and general manager, their lease does not end until 2020.

“We didn’t renegotiate the lease. We’ve had the lease since 1999 when we had a lease with Gregory Carr,” Kuelzer said, referring to entrepreneur and philanthropist Gregory C. Carr, an alumnus of the Harvard Kennedy School.

“I have not met Mr. Chan, but he has a project manager and an operations manager… they’re very competent people,” Kuelzer said.

She added that Chan’s project manager, Jim Covino, told her that Chan has “a lot of commitment to Harvard Square and preserving the unique character of Harvard Square.”

“They’ve been approached by [chain stores and restaurants]…and have declined to lease space to them so I think they’re after a commercial landscape that includes a lot of local business,” Kuelzer said.

Papyrus, UNO, and The Vitamin Shoppe are all tenants on Chan’s property from 18 to 28 JFK St., but all these businesses declined to comment in accordance with their corporate policies.

Chan is not the first foreign investor to purchase an abundance of property in Harvard Square. Polish immigrant Bertha E. Cohen, who came to Boston in 1905, opened her own hat shop called “Mademoiselle Bertha,” after which she quickly proceeded to purchase her first building.

Cohen continued to amass a number of buildings in Cambridge and Boston. At the time of her death in 1965, she left an estimated $20 million fortune. She was widely known as “the witch of Harvard Square” because of her unwillingness to sell buildings to the University.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

—Staff writer Celeste M. Mendoza can be reached at Celeste.Mendoza@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CelesteMMendoza.

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