Chan Unveils Plans to Build Theater, Retail Center at Vacant Church St. Site

UPDATED: June 2, 2017 at 10:39 a.m.

The owner of the Church St. property that used to house the Harvard Square Theater proposed sweeping renovations to the property Wednesday, unveiling plans for a mixed-use retail, movie theatre, and office building to occupy real estate that has been vacant for almost five years.

Billionaire investor and Harvard donor Gerald Chan’s plans detail a new 50,000 square-foot, contemporary-style building that would include two below-ground movie screens, three or four retail shops on the ground floor, and five stories of office space above.

Chan’s announcement comes as some city officials have pressured him to develop plans for the Church St. property, which has remained vacant since 2012 and which Chan purchased in 2015 for $17.5 million. In the spring, some Cambridge city officials threatened to seize the property by eminent domain if Chan did not present a plan for its future. Chan and his team of architects held a private meeting Wednesday with Harvard Square residents and city officials to unveil their proposal.

City Councillor Jan Devereux, who had previously encouraged Chan to move forward with plans, said she was very excited about his vision.

“I loved the fact that they are restoring some cinema in the lower level, and of course the retail activity on the streetfront will be terrific since that part of the block has been pretty dead for several years,” Devereux said. “Overall, I think it’s going to be a very positive addition to Harvard Square.”

The Harvard Square Theater on Church Street advertises leasing. The brick building remains vacant years after its closing, prompting the Cambridge City Council to look into the owner’s plans for its redevelopment.

Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, also spoke to the significance of increasing foot traffic in the Square.

“We’re obviously delighted that the project is moving forward. It’ll be five years in July, and that’s a long time for such a large piece of property in the heart of Harvard Square to be deactivated,” Jillson said. “The Association was very hopeful for an active streetscape. To have first floor retail along that stretch of Church St. is absolutely critical for our members that are already on Church St., just encouraging foot traffic to come down.”

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the release of the plans, Chan will still need the approval of various city boards before the project can move forward. Jillson said that the proposal will first go before the Cambridge Historical Commission, then likely the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, the Cambridge Planning Board, or the Board of Zoning Appeal in order to approve the demolition, construction, and height increase of the building.

“It’ll be a while, but we’re hopeful that because the areas of concern that the public have spoken about have been addressed in this particular design, that in fact we’re hopeful that there will be support for this, which will help move the process along,” Jillson said.

Charles M. Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, said that because the site is within the Harvard Square Conservation District, Chan’s team will need the Commission’s approval to both demolish the current building and to construct the new one.

The Commission holds public hearings, and Sullivan said it is hard to predict how a hearing will go and how vocal people will be. But he said the Commission only deals with the “publically visible exterior of buildings” and not their inside use or cultural significance.

“The theater is certainly significant culturally and historically in Harvard Square; architecturally, it’s not so significant. It’s a pretty simple, unadorned box, a brick box, on Church St,” Sullivan said. “There’s certainly something to be said for a project that would replace it, especially one with storefronts and movie theaters that will bring life to the street.”

Devereux said that at the Wednesday meeting, Chan’s team gave no indication of a timeline for the project.

Chan and Faust
University President Drew G. Faust welcomes Gerald L. Chan on stage at the unveiling of his foundation’s $350 million gift to the Harvard School of Public Health in September 2014.
“They did preface their remarks by acknowledging that Gerald Chan does very fine quality work, but he is not the fastest when it comes to finishing up, so I would not expect it to be on a super fast timetable,” she said. “I know that everybody is anxious to see this move along, but I would think a few years.”

Despite the slow process ahead, many see this as a positive development for the Square.

“There were several other Councillors present yesterday and all of them expressed positive comments, so from that standpoint it looks like it has a good chance of making it through all the process,” Devereux said. City Councillors play no formal role in approving buildings.

In 2014, Chan donated $350 million to the School of Public Health, renaming it in honor of his father.

–Staff writer Alison W. Steinbach can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.