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Vacancies in Square Stir Debate About Future Developments

Storefronts remain empty in Harvard Square after a number of business closed their doors in the last couple of years.
Storefronts remain empty in Harvard Square after a number of business closed their doors in the last couple of years. By Amy Y. Li
By Henry W. Burnes and Franklin R. Civantos, Crimson Staff Writers

Since Crimson Corner left its location at the intersection of Massachusetts Ave, JFK St., and Brattle St. over a year ago, national pizza chain &pizza has sought to secure the necessary approval to open.

In the meantime, the space has sat alongside a number of empty storefronts and new chain locations throughout the Square—and it has drawn attention to changing business dynamics in the area.

High turnover in the Square in recent years has left some storefronts without operating businesses. Prominently featured storefronts—like those that once housed UNO Pizzeria on JFK St., the closed CVS on Mass. Ave., and the Harvard Square Theater on Brattle St.—remain empty.

HBS lecturer John D. Macomber believes the Square is currently undergoing growing pains. Because large shopping malls attract buyers looking for high-priced items—and high-volume, low-priced products have become increasingly available online—Harvard Square’s businesses are stuck somewhere in the middle, according to Macomber.

“If you think about who makes up the Harvard Square foot traffic—largely students and tourists who are not spending a lot of money—it’s easy to see why coffee shops, ice cream places, ATMs and ‘fast casual’ food and coffee shops dominate,” Macomber said.

These changes and vacancies have not always sat well with residents, though. When the &pizza announced plans to open in 2017, many Cambridge residents feared the store would negatively impact the nature of the Square.

At the time, Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, commended &pizza for working with community leaders and government officials to gain approval. She noted that the chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals, who rarely supports the opening of fast food chains in the Square, voted in support of the proposal.

Jillson continues to support &pizza’s plans and believes the chain will open “before too long.”

“They went in front of the license commission last Wednesday and they were applying for their CB and their application for their outside patio,” Jillson said.

African and African American Studies and History of Art and Architecture professor Suzanne P. Blier, a member of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, said she fears the opening of chains like &pizza is part of a negative trend.

“One of the key things is that national chains can afford to pay much higher rent and one by one they’re pricing out local businesses,” Blier said. “Local businesses tend to pay their employees more, and they are part of the community.”

Jillson pointed to a slew of restaurants and stores slated to open in the Square in the near future as proof that many of the apparent vacancies in the Square are temporary.

“We really aren’t seeing many more vacancies,” Jillson said. “The number [of vacancies] doesn’t change a lot. It ranges between 94 or 97 percent occupied. Under any circumstances that’s a terrific number and one that we’re really proud of.”

As for chains in the Square, Jillson explained that the Harvard Square Business Association does monitor the number of chains at any given time, with locally-owned businesses usually numbering around 70 to 72 percent.

She emphasized that recent vacancies were not caused by the departure of local businesses but rather by chains.

“In the past couple or three years the vast number of businesses that have left Harvard Square have been international or nationals,” Jillson said. “It may be indicative that the consumer in Harvard Square might have a preference for locally owned businesses.”

—Staff writer Henry W. Burnes can be reached at


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