Monday, May 27, 2024

Next week sees another step in TD Bank opening a branch in Central Square, in the 613 Massachusetts Ave. space that used to house The Gap. The Board of Zoning Appeal plans a hearing Thursday over plans for signs and lighting.

There has been opposition to the bank’s arrival. Some see it as the unfortunate corporate takeover of Harvard Square moving down the avenue, spurred by high rents that can be afforded only a business on the level of a national bank. Several people complained of the trend at a Dec. 16 forum on the square’s future.

The interim president of the Central Square Business Association, George Metzger, agreed early this month that “at the moment we’re suffering from [too much] bank branches,” but also said people’s perception of the square may be unfairly affected by a few glaringly empty storefronts. He spoke Feb. 4, shortly after Pearl Art shut its massive 579 Massachusetts Ave. store. (An excellent resource on business closings and the aftereffects can be found at Empty Mass Ave, which notes today the closing of the Forest Café bar and Mexican restaurant at 1682 Massachusetts Ave.)

“At the moment, the appearance is there’s significant vacancy” in the square, Metzger said. “It needs constant attention and it needs a good public relations effort to ensure people” have a clear picture of the situation.

“There’s constant movement. We’re having a wave of displacement and replacement,” he said, and it is not just that businesses are being forced out. The closing of Pearl, for instance, was an “internal” decision by the chain, which has been closing branches around the country and found itself squeezed in Cambridge between two competitors: Utrecht Art Supply, nearby at 1030 Mass Ave., and Artist and Craftsman Supply — literally across the street at 580 Mass. Ave.

“They were not forced out by the landlord,” Metzger stressed, referring to Pearl Art.

There are also positive developments, such as India Pavilion’s expansion at 17 Central Square, and space coming on the market — although sometimes that becomes part of the very problem complained about at the December forum. The 11,000 square feet of space rebuilt by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at 450 Massachusetts Ave. “has been empty for two years. The landlord wants to rent it at a cost no one wants to rent at,” Metzger said. “We have meetings periodically with landlords pressing them to get spaces rented.”

There is about 20,000 square feet of retail and office space available in Central Square not including the Pearl Art space, according to a city database of available square footage maintained by the Community Development Department with submissions from local real estate agencies and landlords. The database was begun in November and last updated in early January, said Pardis Saffari, an associate planner in the department, on Tuesday. (Here’s another partial database from the business association.)

In explaining why the city doesn’t maintain the database through its own legwork, Saffari echoed Metzger, saying it was “because things change so quickly.”

While Pearl Art’s closing more than doubles the thousands of square feet on the market — the store has a sprawling basement, not just ground-floor space — some 5,000 square feet will be removed from the database when TD Bank takes over the Gap store.

She agreed also that when noting all the empty storefronts, “what people are forgetting is that some of it is new … things look a little more vacant not just because stores are closing.”

Pearl Art executives at company headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have yet to respond to phone calls and messages left this week seeking details on the Central Square real estate.