Sunday, July 14, 2024

“Harvard Square is in crisis,” one shopkeeper said tonight after a two -hour public brainstorming session on the square at Christ Church, and the sentiment was hardly unique. While the event offered optimism alongside group critiques of the area, the afterparty was distinctly darker.

Vast sections of prime real estate are empty, even as the cost of renting has dropped dramatically, in some cases, said one real estate agent at the meeting, by $20 a square foot. Foot traffic is down, just as dramatically. The summer was a disaster. The holidays aren’t looking so good, either.

But the primary criticism of the criticism was that, in answering the four questions proposed by the city’s community development department, residents, officials and even business owners revealed a big, bitter truth: There’s plenty of stuff in Harvard Square that people simply don’t know about.

Even in answering question No. 1, “What works well in Harvard Square?,” some negativity crept in regarding how bad the economic picture is. But it was in answering the other questions — “What do you think is missing in the retail mix?”; “Of the things that are missing, what are the top three items that might improve the mix?”; and “Any ideas about improvements that would bolster the retail mix?” — that the awful truth crept in, as six subgroups announced their wishes that the square had a deli, lingerie, late-night cafes, cheap places to hang out, live music you could dance to, housewares …

It may be argued that the square needs all of the above in more variety, but it was also clear that people were failing to think of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, Clothwares, Au Bon Pain, Cafe Pamplona, Phatt Boys, Dickson Bros. True Value …

“And these are the people who live and work here,” a business owner said.

Little was decided at the meeting. At the end, city workers took the six oversized lists away for posting on the Web and further mulling.

A few things were clear, though, made so by appearing on multiple lists: Everyone loathes the banks that have turned prime Harvard Square real estate into a barren video arcade; everyone wants Harvard Square to get a grocery store, whether or not they knew Sage’s died of neglect years ago; and pretty much everyone wants cheap-nonchain-coffee-shops-that-are-open-late-to-hang-out-in-for-hours. And many people suggested that brand management, meaning better public relations, was the way to a Harvard Square resurrection.

“The solution may lie [in funding] a communications firm, which will take the image of Harvard Square as an intellectual, historical and cultural Mecca and revitalize and manage this image over a five-year period,” said one handout, amid complaints about bad press Harvard Square gets locally and nationally.

The idea was not universally embraced.

Walking out of the meeting, one Harvard Square businessperson was heard asking something along the lines of: “Communications firm? What the hell do we have an office of tourism for?”