Signs of hope in renewed debate over Central Square
The decline of Central Square drew debate from city councillors at their Monday meeting. While asking the city manager to gather the Central Square community to decide a path forward, they split on whether it was their role to come up with a revival plan or request one from the city manager and Community Development department.
Also debated: how active a role the city can have in getting empty storefronts filled.
There was strong agreement that, as councillor Ken Reeves said, “we have opened the door of unreality to have citizens believe we can tell people what they must do with property they own.”
But Reeves also said he’d sent many prospective tenants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose prominently empty storefront next to the Central Square Theater has drawn repeated criticism from officials and residents.
And Beth Rubenstein, the assistant city manager heading Community Development, revealed that she’d approached the TJX Cos. Inc. about moving into the square without success, but would try again now that nearly 21,000 square feet has become vacant since the early February departure of Pearl Art from 579 Massachusetts Ave.
Several councilors learned Monday that Pearl’s store was profitable and closed as part of a larger corporate strategy, but that still left empty windows on Massachusetts Avenue in a vital Cambridge marketplace. The closing doubled the amount of available space in the square, according to a city database, and councillors including Henrietta Davis suggested short-term programs to fill display windows, such as filling storefronts with art or municipal information, could help keep the square from looking too desolate.
A T.J. Maxx or Marshall’s can fit in 20,000 square feet, Rubenstein confirmed, promising to again approach the Framingham company. It was noted that such stores in Boston have even less parking than the Cambridge location would offer.
“I would love to have one of those entities in Central Square,” City Manager Robert W. Healy said. “But I’m not going to sit here and say it’ll succeed, because those are corporate decisions.”
Demand for department-style retail, with apparel and especially women’s apparel, was at the top of a Central Square wish list created as part of 400-person survey last year, councillor Denise Simmons noted.
“Part of the problem is that we don’t have a set economic development plan,” she told Rubenstein and Healy. “I’m sure the business owners would like the city to be more deliberate, to go beyond a façade program. We have a wonderful Community Development department, we’re not in short supply of [stakeholders], so why such difficulty coming together?”
She also hoped the Central Square Business Association would step forward more aggressively, as she said she’s seen such associations do in Harvard or Kendall squares.
“We’ve been waiting for Central Square to come into its own,” said Simmons, who organized discussion on the square last year, when she was mayor. “How do we breathe some real air into it?”
Before Simmons insisted on Healy and Rubenstein leading the process, councillors Craig Kelley and Leland Cheung said they wanted the council to be more active, instead bringing suggestions to city workers. But all councillors who spoke agreed residents should be involved, and that the work should be done in a private-public partnership.
Some property owners find a tax benefit in leaving their storefronts empty, Healy said. And while there “might be a slight disjoint” between what renters feel they should pay and what landlords feel they can charge, Healy is aware of organizations forced out by higher rents who want to find other space in the square — likely a reference to Cambridge Community Television, which is within the last six months of its tenancy on Prospect Street. That appeal keeps property owners from feeling too desperate to rent at lower rates, he suggested.
Healy said he was willing to meet on the topic of Central Square improvements, and he was even able to offer some hope on MIT’s long-vacant space at 450 Massachusetts Ave.
“I do think MIT is making some level of progress on its property by the theater,” he said.