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The Cambridge Historical Commission voted to delay debate on a proposal from real estate firm Equity One to remodel the famed building in Harvard Square that houses the Curious George store.
In a packed City Hall Thursday evening, local residents delayed a vote for more than three hours during the public comment and question period with vigorous defenses of the building’s current state.
The proposal, which would transform the building by adding elevators and two more floors of commercial and office space, is likely to cause the eviction of most tenants including the iconic Curious George Store, Urban Outfitters, and the Harvard Square Business Association—at least during the construction period. Equity One refers to the building as “The Harvard Collection.”
At the hearing, project architect David Chilinski, a member of the Harvard Square Business Association, presented on the history of the building and what he described as the intentions behind Equity One’s proposal.
“We spent some time looking through the materials that the Historical Commission had to understand the evolution of this site over the last 100 years,” Chilinski said, during his defense of the project. “The spirit behind it is a minimalist structure that allows the buildings to retain their identity on the street.”
The Sullivan Chamber in City Hall quickly filled to standing room only, with the majority of individuals at the meeting opposing the Equity One proposal. Adam Hirsch, the owner of the Curious George Store, brought a large stuffed animal of the precocious monkey, who sat in the front row of the chamber. During the presentation, members of the public spoke out of turn and interrupted the proceedings, pausing the meeting.
“It’s really important that we keep this Square’s integrity,” said Caroline H. Mak, a junior at MIT and supporter of the Curious George Store.
The meeting began with a statement by William Brown, an executive vice president of Equity One, who addressed and sought to quell public concern that the buildings will become a mall, rather like other Equity One projects around the country.
“This property was acquired with a full understanding of the significance of the architecture,” Brown said. “This is one asset that doesn’t fit any of our typical portfolio. We are looking to activate the street.”
Speaking to the unique nature of the proposal, Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, introduced the history of the site from its beginnings in 1630 to the present day.
Sullivan then reminded the public that the commission cannot make judgements about the interior of the building or its use.
“In general in both historic districts and conservation districts, the jurisdiction of the Commision is limited to the publicly viewable aspects of the building,” Sullivan said. “There’s no way for the Commission to exercise jurisdiction over use.”
Many proposed changes to Harvard Square have been debated by the community in recent weeks, and a unrelated petition was passed throughout the audience by Our Harvard Square, an organization calling for the landmark designation of the Harvard Square Kiosk.
James J. Rafferty, an attorney on behalf of Equity One, said that following the hearing, Equity One would begin a month-long process to petition the City Planning Board. If Equity One’s plans are approved by the Planning Board, construction is slated to begin in 2018, Brown said.
Future Historical Commission debate on the proposal will be scheduled soon.
Also scheduled for public hearing, and approved by the board for five years, was a proposal by Harvard University to “install wireless access points and antennas to enable service” in historic Harvard Yard. The goal of the project is to increase wi-fi access within the Yard by mounting eleven antennas on current “blue-lights.”
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