Landmarking the Harvard Square kiosk means taking a step back toward trust

A controversial concept sketch for the Harvard Square kiosk by The Galante Architecture Studio.

The Harvard Square Neighborhood Association is right to fear what is coming to Harvard Square: massive construction that will strain local commerce; post-construction rents that will make it even harder for small business to survive in some desirable locations; and architectural changes that may increasingly taint the charm of the tourist-friendly spot.

So we endorse the landmarking of the 1920s kiosk (which got 1980s alterations) housing the Out of Town News and anything that protects an appropriate aura of old-town charm, even if the kiosk comes to house something other than a newsstand. The modernistic “concept sketch” of a redesign released last year by The Galante Architecture Studio has its fans – Cambridge Historical Commission executive director Charlie Sullivan has described it as “spectacular” – but it’s good that the architects to be hired out of a recent bidding process can find their own way. The Galante design is “not a starting point,” Sullivan said.

Harvard Square should not be rigidly maintained into a precious, programmed simulacrum of whatever looks “olde” and quaint – yuck – but there’s no question that 8 million to 10 million tourists a year arrive with an image in mind, and every bit of old-fashioned craftsmanship that’s lost should be appraised carefully for what it costs the truth of that image. The square is a conservation district for a reason.

As some sort of change comes – the city is putting $4.6 million into upgrading the kiosk and surrounding plaza, and exploring new uses – every bit of glass and LED that undoes brick and iron (and, well, other glass) should be weighed against what has already happened and what is coming. There’s widespread agreement in Cambridge that the malling wrought by ground-floor banks and formula stores should stop, but the onrush of pricey revamps makes it harder.

One thing that will help in that conversation and compromise is the ability to trust one another, but the city complicated that enormously by beginning the whole kiosk redesign as it did, taking a fast, singleminded and essentially closed-door approach to design and concept with the Harvard Square Business Association as designated partner. It was, frankly, suspicious. The lack of trust it sparked continues to bog down conversation, and the city should have known better. (“The client here is pretty experienced,” Sullivan said of the city, albeit in a slightly different context.) That’s especially so since the the city’s bid process apparently included a misstatement, according to Sullivan, and the City Manager’s Office has acknowledged that the bidding process is based on a repealed law, though the “minor ministerial error does not invalidate the architectural services designer selection process.”

If the Historic Commission landmarks the kiosk, it will be a step back toward trust, and a signal that very real concerns about the square are taken seriously and can be addressed openly.

The commission takes up the issue imminently: at 6 tonight at the Citywide Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.

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