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Council Considers Changes to Square Business Zoning

Cambridge residents discussed zoning proposals in Harvard Square at the Cambridge City Council Ordinance Committee Wednesday.
Cambridge residents discussed zoning proposals in Harvard Square at the Cambridge City Council Ordinance Committee Wednesday. By Kai R. McNamee
By Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council Ordinance Committee considered zoning changes aimed at increasing the amount of local businesses in Harvard Square at a meeting Wednesday night.

The proposed changes include granting exemptions for developers renting retail spaces less than 1,500 square feet, limiting storefront space for businesses like cannabis dispensaries and banks, and amending zoning language to allow for greater density and less parking requirements.

Cambridge resident Patrick W. Barrett III presented the petition’s proposals to the committee. He said the proposals are a “beginning step” to address aspects of Harvard Square that are “incongruous” with the city’s goals.

“While it may not be earth-shattering in the sense of zoning, it’s earth-shattering in the sense that we have a commonality agreement, and we have forward momentum for an area that I think we all can agree needs help,” Barrett said.

Harvard Square has seen a slew of closings in recent months. In September, three businesses — Flat Patties, Black Ink, and Out of Town News — bid farewell to their Cambridge storefronts. Though many have gone, businesses such as Spyce, Veggie Grill, and Bluestone Lane — which opened in place of departed Crema Cafe — have taken root.

During the meeting, Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern cautioned councilors to consider the way that they discuss the state of Harvard Square, saying that they should be “careful.”

“Yes, it's changed, and yes, there are issues — but saying things like, ‘Oh, this is a terrible place’ — it’s not going to draw people into the Square to support the businesses that are there now,” he said. “So, let's just be a little more supportive of the Square.”

Multiple organizations, including the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association and the Harvard Square Business Association, collaborated on the petition, according to Barrett. The petition garnered 18 signatures from residents, comprising members of both the HSNA and the HSBA.

Suzanne P. Blier, president of the HSNA and an African American Studies professor at Harvard, said the petition’s mission is to “encourage more local businesses” to successfully operate in the Square and to create a “vibrant” and diverse area.

“I think at this point, all of us really want a vibrant Harvard Square,” she said. “It's a question of coming together and seeing what we can do by way of incremental changes that will make Harvard Square even more thriving and using Harvard Square as a model for other places in the city, and even elsewhere, of what you can do when you bring citizens and businesses and institutions.”

Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the HSBA, said that though the changes are not a “panacea” to address all the issues in Harvard Square, it will provide “a little more flexibility” for businesses opening in the area. She cited foot traffic as a major factor in the Square’s future success.

“This doesn't solve all the problems,” Jillson said. “This just gives property owners and developers one more tool in the toolbox. We want to make sure that there's a robust streetscape.”

The committee ultimately voted to keep the proposal in committee, citing further questions. They directed the Community Development Department to work with the petitioners to continue to develop the proposals.

—Staff writer Katelyn X. Li contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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Harvard SquareCambridge City CouncilCambridgeSquare Business