The Curious Case of Historic Harvard Square

curious george storePhotos by Jess Benjamin.

Plans to redevelop a block of buildings have come to represent more than the one-off loss of a beloved bookstore, spurring a fight for the culture and future of the neighborhood.

Stop by the Curious George Store in Harvard Square on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll find scores of children and parents exploring the aisles, stopping to inspect plush monkeys, board games and bright yellow, red and blue children’s books lining the wooden shelves. Those who have shopped in the store since it opened in 1995—international travelers and locals alike—know the warm feeling of this bustling children’s bookstore well.

Now, imagine standing in the same space. But instead of facing the shelved walls that make up the back of the store, you’re surrounded by walls made entirely of glass as you gaze out and up at open space that extends up several floors. After entering a sleek elevator to the right, you ascend to the second floor of a shopping pavilion which is also encased in glass, light streaming in from above.

This is the vision of Equity One. The New York-based real estate development firm bought the famed Abbot Building at the intersection of JFK and Brattle Streets, which houses the Curious George Store, as well as the connected buildings at 9-11 JFK St. and 18-20 Brattle St., last October.

Equity One’s redevelopment plan for the parcel, which the firm has rebranded The Harvard Collection, involves transforming the back of the Abbott Building into an all-glass, five-floor shopping pavilion with a green roof. The brick facade of the building’s front will remain, with some enlarged windows on the first floor. The space that currently houses Curious George will act less as a standalone shop and more as a yawning entrance to the shopping pavilion.

According to Equity One, the main goals of the project are to add usable retail and office space to the square, which would “activate the street” and restore the aging building.

curious george store

On October 6, the Cambridge Historic Commission held a public meeting where examining—and potentially voting on—the firm’s plans was a key agenda item. (The conversation continued an initial three-hour meeting held in early September at which the vote was delayed.)

The commission is charged with fulfilling nine rather detailed objectives for historic districts like Harvard Square. Among them are maintaining the vitality and diversity of the square by preserving historically or architecturally significant buildings and supporting contemporary design for new construction that complements and contributes to neighbors of the district. The commission does not, however, have the power to preserve current use or restrict future use of a building or its interior, or to dictate which tenants rent retail space inside historic buildings. A building permit cannot be obtained without a Certificate of Appropriateness from the commission, which will grant one if it approves the modifications.

curious george store

After a presentation of the development plans, William Brown, vice president of development at Equity One, described the aesthetic and effect of the glass addition as “quiet, simple and transparent. We want to respect the existing buildings—we think they are beautiful.”

Equity One representatives say they appreciate the historic quality of the building and want to emphasize those attributes while energizing the square. But the building’s reconstruction has sparked a public outcry and, in some, feelings of mistrust and suspicion toward the firm.

The project would require current commercial tenants like the Curious George Store to vacate the building for two to three years during the renovations, and there’s no guaranteeing those same tenants would ever return to Harvard Square.

“Even if we were asked to come back [after construction], what does ‘back’ look like? What does ‘back’ cost?” asks Adam Hirsch, the owner of the Curious George Store. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if his rent doubled.

“I’m not against development … but I’m of the mind it’s not if, it’s when,” Hirsch explains regarding the increasing presence of national chains in the square. Yet the fight to stay is critical for him as the owner of one of the last bookstores—and the last children’s-specific bookstore—in the Cambridge area. While another neighborhood would undoubtedly welcome the Curious George Store with open arms, the forced relocation is at the very least a disruption to Hirsch’s livelihood. Were construction to begin as Equity One intends, tenants would have one year to find new digs.

“Everyone hangs their hat on Harvard Square,” Caroline James, a Harvard School of Design-educated architect and a supporter of the Curious George Store, noted before the October 6 meeting. James is spearheading a separate petition to save the Out of Town News Kiosk and has founded a group called Our Harvard Square, a collective voice calling to preserve the kiosk and Curious George Store.

According to James, international students, longtime residents of Cambridge and homeless people all have a tradition of sharing space in the square.

“The overall aesthetic [proposed by Equity One] is troubling because it sanitizes,” James reasons, adding that it may be more forward-looking in the world of architecture to embrace the traditional spirit of neighborhoods. “[In architecture], we’re going back to the more regional. What is vernacular?” Wrapping buildings in glass, she says, is not in keeping with the spirit of the largely brick, historical square.

James suspects that Equity One will offer short-term leases after redevelopment and sell the building in about five years at a major profit. She echoes Hirsch’s outlook. “We’re not anti-development, we’re just thinking it needs to be balanced,” she says. “And right now, the Equity One proposal is to maximize their five-year profit and then get out.”

curious george store

Both Hirsch and James were in attendance at the October 6 meeting, which drew around three-dozen attendees. While the initial September discussion saw an outpouring of concerned citizens, this follow-up resembled more of a trickling—likely because another meeting of interest regarding the future of the Foundry building was occurring at the same time at city hall.

The conversation began with overall civility. A handful of audience members from the public who had architectural backgrounds asked detailed questions about the square footage of glass and the start and stop of slab lines, while others inquired about shadow studies and whether lights would emanate from the building late into the night.

But at a certain point, the questions became more pointed.

“What other alternatives have you considered besides solid glass walls, because of the concern about suburbanizing, mallification and especially blinding night lights from a space that is undoubtedly going to be open late?” one member of the public asked the Equity One representatives.

“Somebody already raised the awful specter of the mallification of Harvard Square. I’ve been here for 44 years and watched the square totally deteriorate … you might as well be in a damn rental mall,” said resident Harvey Bowman. “When you do this renovation, how much more expensive will it be to rent space? Who is going to be able to afford it? We have enough banks and box stores. What are we going to be left with?”

curious george store

Prior to the public question portion of the meeting, William B. King, the chair of the commission, requested that the public not pose rhetorical questions during the fact-finding portion as there is time for comment at the end, after informational questions are posed. Once the meeting had moved to the public comment portion, one audience member—Mr. Williamson—asserted that the only reason there was not more public outcry was because the public is unaware of this plan. Were more people informed, he said, “they would be horrified.”

Again, no vote was held at the close of the meeting, which, like the first, ran for over three hours. Historical Commission representatives say that a December meeting will likely be the next opportunity for the public to comment on the issue, and the conversations could trail on long into the winter.

Whether the commission rejects Equity One’s proposed glass addition—one of the more offensive aspects of the proposal to the public, who see it as smacking of suburbia—the question of the square’s future identity will likely be anything but resolved.

The public movement to preserve a building in which the first floor is composed almost entirely of an Urban Outfitters, and which is situated across the street from a Starbucks, a CVS and a National bank chain, seems ironic to some. Similar tensions simmered last year when Harvard University moved forward with the buildout of its Smith Student Center (also with a glass facade), displacing institutions like Al’s Harvard Square Cafe and Clover Food Lab, along with the Au bon Pain and its tables and chess boards, famously featured in Good Will Hunting. But when the Au bon Pain first arrived in the 1980s, many residents cried foul. In time, the cafe was brought into the canon of Harvard Square’s iconic spots.

Friction between those who want to welcome bigger commercial chains and those seeking to preserve the quirkiness of the square is not new, nor will it likely dissipate anytime soon—even if the commission rejects Equity One’s proposal. Is there, perhaps, a Harvard Square with neither the culture it had 45 years ago nor one that’s sterilized by a glassy exterior, national chains and high-end eateries and shops?

As Hirsch puts it, “The most salient point for us is: What is Harvard Square? What is Cambridge? Many will answer, it is an epicenter for education and learning.”

A Barnes & Noble encased in glass may not be a worthy equivalent.

This story originally appeared in the November/December issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available (for free!) at more than 250 locations throughout the city.

curious george store