Threat of bank is really threat of a bubble; Harvard Square landlords win either way

Homeless panhandlers make use of the Crimson Corner space, where the landlord closed a newsstand to see the area “cleaned up.” (Photo: Marc Levy)

The third try by the &pizza restaurant chain for a location in Harvard Square – now combined with a baker called Milk Bar and named “milk &pizza” – is a reminder of the ultimatum directed in April at city officials and residents who might oppose it, with some claiming that the square has enough pizza already.

“Honestly, if they don’t go in there, it’s gonna be a financial institution,” said Gary Doyle, representing the property owners, two newly clashing family trusts. “We’ll end up making a bunch more money and you will have had all sorts of opportunities [to prevent it].”

At least one member of the Board of Zoning Appeal was affected enough by this to switch her vote toward approval April 27.

The reason Doyle’s words are so chillingly effective is that Harvard Square already has 10 banking institutions, according to its business association, and an 11th is moving into a Brattle Street space that was once an American Apparel retail shop. The taking over of the formerly funky square by financial institutions tops the list of things hated by your classic Cantabrigian. On the whole they deaden a street – if not during the day, when people might actually come to a Harvard Square bank branch to do business, then certainly at night when the bank is closed and long stretches of sidewalk have nothing active or interesting.

To landlords, banks look like steady money. To everyone else, they looks like one storefront more that gives tourists no reason to visit, one storefront more that, 364 days of the year, might as well be an ATM taking up a fraction of the space.

Like our bank-haters, Doyle follows in a grand – if more recent – Cambridge tradition. When a particularly feckless City Council gave up 42 percent of Kendall Square’s rooftop garden, it was after being threatened with the loss of Google as a prestigious tenant. When officials asked what would happen if the vote on the Mass+Main residential tower in Central Square was delayed, lawyer Anthony Galluccio said: “Not to be making a threat, but this is an office building, quickly.” When the developers of NorthPoint were faced with raising affordable-housing units to 20 percent from 11.5 percent of the total, DivcoWest executive Tom Sullivan told the council the financial effect “would be devastating” and probably keep the 42 acres crawling through a decade-long mire. The developers got what they wanted each time.

“I’m not threatening,” Doyle said, issuing his threat about &pizza vs. a bank. “I’m basically stating a principle of business.”

Another principle says &pizza should be able to open in the square to see whether the market supports it (and there’s reason to think it might, since Bertucci’s and its brick-oven pizza and Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill, both within a block or so, left not that long ago). Yet other principles might question the sense for Harvard Square as a whole of leaving storefronts empty and depressing visits from tourists and locals, or filling the spaces with high-paying tenants that give the same result – benefiting landlords who can spend the coming years counting money while the retailers filling their other properties find fewer and fewer people coming to help pay their own rent to the same owners. Harvard Square and Cambridge as a whole is building a bubble, but it’s not made of pizza.

Meanwhile, one of Doyle’s reasons for clearing out the Crimson Corner newsstand and making way for &pizza was that “Crimson Corner’s pretty much of an eyesore if you’ve driven by it lately. We wanted that to get cleaned up.”

The result? The first spot seen as millions of tourists annually arrive out of the Harvard Square T stop has become prime real estate for homeless panhandlers.

It’s another cost paid by the city to landlords who no longer see the long-term health of Harvard Square as beneficial to themselves as well. Even if &pizza gets its license and takes that corner spot, it will still be just the property owners’ private bank.

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One Response to "Threat of bank is really threat of a bubble; Harvard Square landlords win either way"

  1. HeatherHoffman   Monday, July 17, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Actually, Google didn’t threaten to leave Kendall Square, nor did I hear anyone other than city councillors raise that as an issue. I’ve always thought they made it up to cover for their caving once again to developers’ unreasonable demands.

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