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Committee Delays Recommendation on Harvard Square Restrictions

Cambridge City Council
The Cambridge City Council at a meeting in September.
Cambridge City officials and residents debated the merits of a petition aimed at restricting the size of commercial businesses in Harvard Square in a meeting Wednesday, ultimately failing to reach an official recommendation.

The Cambridge Ordinance Committee met this Wednesday to discuss a petition submitted by Cambridge resident Peter B. Kroon. The petition would add new criteria to the process for reviewing applications for special permits and variances in the Harvard Square Overlay district.

If approved, the petition would amend zoning regulations, requiring buildings of over 60 linear feet or more to devote half of their frontage to “small store space,” defined as spaces under 1,250 rentable feet. The petition also would restrict all floor area above a building height of 60 feet to residential space.

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Under the petition, commercial storefronts like banks, trust companies, real estate agencies and other administrative offices would be allowed to occupy no more than 25 feet of business frontage in the Square.

The petitioners, led by Kroon, said they sought to protect small business in the Square, addressing an issue they feel current infrastructure does not sufficiently address.

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“Our concern is the retail ecosystem,” Kroon said at the meeting. “And use is something that the Historical Commission does not talk about and will not talk about.”

The Cambridge Historical Commission, which has been thrust into city-wide debates over the future of Harvard Square, has recently faced criticism from some residents for approving a pedestrian mall in the center of the Square in August. In the past few years, new landowners and increasing rents have pushed out many small businesses.

Kroon originally submitted his petition to the Cambridge City Clerk on Sept. 25. The City’s planning commission previously discussed the petition on multiple occasions.

At the meeting, Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, spoke in firm opposition to the petition.

“The type of stores, who owns them, how much frontage they have, what their merchandising policies are, and whether they are 1800 square feet or 1500 square feet is far less important than good quality and good value,” she said.

Jillson argued the petition would hurt business growth and success in the Square.

“Given that this petition does nothing to increase foot traffic and that it hinders sustainable leasing opportunities, diminishes flexibility, restricts growth, and hyperregulates marketing efforts, we strongly object to it,” Jillson said.

Though many members of the committee—including City Councillor Dennis J. Carlone, chair of the ordinance committee and Vice Mayor Jan Devereux—supported the intent of the petition, small debates about around specific points prevented the meeting from moving quickly.

Following five hours of debate, Carlone motioned to “leave it in committee at this point and to pick it up another time.”

Further complicating the proceedings, the petitioners modified the petition prior to the Planning Board’s Jan. 2 meeting, leading to concerns about whether or not the petition had gone through the proper legislative channels.

“There are a lot of great ideas and concepts here,” Carlone said. “I feel strongly about them and maybe the best thing to do is repackage them and do a little more research with property owners.”

—Staff writer Henry W. Burnes can be reached at henry.burnes@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Franklin R. Civantos can be reached at frank.civantos@thecrimson.com.

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