In Harvard Square, The Abbott Plan Inches Forward

The Curious George Store, which is located in the Abbott Building, is one business that could be displaced if and when development moves forward. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

After months of four-hour hearings, multiple revisions and at least one mid-meeting snowball hurled by a frustrated citizen, the fate of a block of Harvard Square buildings remains uncertain.

On February 7, a group of concerned Cambridge-area residents milled about a gray-carpeted, garden-level room in a Harvard University building off Appian Way. The group perused posters provided by the development firm Regency Centers, which showed revised renderings of the plans for its three Harvard Square buildings: The Abbott, The Corcoran and 18 Brattle.

In order for Regency (which recently purchased and merged with Equity One, the New York-based development firm that owns the buildings) to move forward with plans, the firm needs approval from the Cambridge Historic Commission, which it has been seeking since September. But before again seeking that approval at a February 16 hearing—the fourth for the project—the development firm organized this informal meeting to field public reactions.

These hearings have occurred with something approaching regularity over the last several months, but public skepticism about the project has all but waned. Disapproval centers on a few key planning points, including the loss of the Curious George Store (which is housed in the Abbott Building), the disappearance of other independently owned shops due to presumed post-construction rent hikes and the erosion of Harvard Square’s culture at the hands of high-end development. There’s also concern about the disruption 27 months of construction would cause and—perhaps the greatest objection of all—resistance to the proposed glass infill that would create a connected, multistory pavilion extending from the back of the Abbott building, atop the Corcoran building.

By February 7, the glass had vanished from the firm’s plans. Developers instead proposed a brick infill that would look more like a distinct, additional building on top of the Corcoran Building—an attempt to make the renovations more in tune with the colloquial design of Harvard Square. (In a December meeting, the commission had approved the idea of an infill in principle, but said the design needed to be refined. The shift to brick from glass is Regency’s attempt to satisfy that request.)

Among several other changes, Regency has trimmed down a proposed fifth-floor penthouse on the top of the infill so it would not appear so prominently from certain vantage points on the street.

Still, even with physical amendments, the cultural and architectural affront seems to remain in the eyes of many who attended both the official and unofficial February meetings.

At the first meeting, a Regency representative inadvertently used a term that would come back to haunt him, saying the penthouse addition would likely house a “celebrity chef.” Commenters said they felt Harvard Square did not need nationally recognized celebrity chefs, and later, at the Cambridge Historic Commission meeting, an audience member would interject, “for the celebrity chefs,” when the project architect took a brief pause during his presentation of the penthouse adjustment.

There were a few icy moments at both meetings. At one point on February 6, a snowball splattered against the window looking into the meeting room, seemingly hurled by someone who left early. But it wasn’t all contentious. The attorney representing Regency, James Rafferty, thanked an audience member for his suggestions and questions throughout the process. At the February 16 Historic Commission meeting, a dissenter even complemented developers on their ability to adjust the plans so much. During hearing breaks, numerous residents—even those who had accused the firm of degrading the culture of their square—chatted with Regency representatives.

The public comment portion of the February 16 meeting was lengthy, and people came prepared with slides and presentations. The first commenter opened with a video presentation based on data and analysis generated by Pete Cote of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In it, the pavilion was visible from multiple vantage points, including almost the entire walk up from the riverside at JFK Street. This time around, the penthouse pavilion became one of the most contentious aspects of the plans.

Cambridge resident Francis Donovan took issue with its sustainability, saying that “the life span of even the best restaurant is a fraction of the lifespan of a building.” The penthouse addition could end up as a “9,000-square-foot elephant” in Harvard Square, he concluded. “Some have said this is a fight for old Harvard Square,” another commenter said, explaining that an infill on top of the Corcoran building would degrade the integrity of its design. “That’s not what this is about. This is about the architecture. I hope the commission won’t allow our first Flatiron Building to be absorbed into something monolithic.”

Ultimately, the commission had mixed opinions after presentation and public comment. Some expressed that the brick infill jeopardized the Flatiron style of the Abbott building, but thought if it was pushed back or differentiated it could be permissible. Some commissioners said that they liked the idea of the pavilion—that the penthouse would offer another exciting way to experience the square from up above. However, most commissioners hoped the pavilion would be made smaller. A few expressed interest in being on top of the pavilion to overlook the square, but many hoped that the developer could try to bring in the edges even further.

Alas, after a nearly four-hour meeting, the commission concluded unanimously that the firm would need to resubmit plans once again for a later meeting (yet to be determined). Perhaps the fifth time will be the charm for Regency Centers.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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