Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cambridge’s Central Square is an appealing area, but faces hurdles in crafting a retail strategy. (Photo: Ethan O’Connor)

It was a small group discussing the future of Central Square on Monday, and they faced a confounding series of contradictions. Among the first was the size of the group itself — too small to include a city planner, said resident Monica Velgos, who attended and took careful notes.

“It seems like I’m always meeting people in this town with city planning experience, or opinions about city planning,” she said. “Where were they last night?”

The Central Square Retail Mix & Vacancies Working Group, she found, was herself and several other residents, poet/playwright Monica Raymond, a few municipal workers — including co-chairwomen Estella Johnson, director of Economic Development, and Elaine Madden, the city’s project planner — and the third co-chairwoman, Michelle Perez, of Cambridge Savings Bank. They met in the City Hall Annex on Broadway.

The challenges became obvious as the group talked. Here’s how Velgos sees them:

—It’s hard to brainstorm just what kind of retail operations Central Square could use while at the same time being informed retail is a lagging industry, and not even big-box stores are immune to closing.

—A big-box store would be useful to residents for inexpensive casual clothing, housewares, etc., but there’s not a big enough space to house it. And prior big-box stores have failed in the square. That type of store may not even fit the vision for the square.

—This working group has no representatives from the biggest-spending demographic in the square (people in their 20s and 30s), whose valuable input wasn’t heard and isn’t known.

—Successful, multishop marketplaces such as Thornes Marketplace in Northampton and even The Garage in Harvard Square are at a higher price point than Central Square could bear, so even if they seem great they probably wouldn’t work here. But Porter Square’s market was also cited as a success.

—It’s hard to determine what will bring the most economic success to the square: Stores that serve local residents, incoming workers, college students or stores that will draw people from out of town. Is there one store that will serve all these groups? Do we need to decide on a combination of stores that will? How would we bring them in?

—Even if a few new retail stores could serve Central Square’s diverse population, is that any guarantee they will succeed? (When I told the older woman next to me that I buy my kids’ clothes and some of mine online, she admitted she buys her own clothes online, too.)

Raymond asked why a food court/crafts marketplace wasn’t on the list of topics provided by the organizers, as it had been a popular idea at a prior discussion.

After Johnson’s explanation, that the listed discussion topics were the ones mentioned most at three previous meetings, Raymond passed out a writeup describing her idea of “a place that would provide tables with food and/or other stalls surrounding. The surrounding stalls would be primarily local small businesses. They could be outgrowths of existing Cambridge markets/restaurants, or individual small producers who have a particular specialty, in the same way that the annual Central Square World’s Fair includes booths run both by restaurants and independents… Folks could possibily also purchase crafts, takeout food, and locally grown produce and specialty food products.”

The Garage mall in Harvard Square could provide a model for shared retail space in Central Square. (Photo: eileansiar)

To bring a place such a Thornes, or even a world market such as Raymond recommends, there would need to be an intermediary, Johnson said. A landlord won’t want to be responsible for collecting multiple rents.

Raymond suggested a nonprofit intermediary could be created, and there was a further suggestion of a commission to prove to tenants that there’s a market in Central Square, and prove to landlords that such tenants weren’t a risk.

Velgos summed up another key point:

“Central Square needs a marketing plan,” she said, echoing what city councillor Ken Reeves was saying at essentially the same moment, down the avenue at City Hall. “There are lots of statistics and research and reports available, but no plan.”

Some other notes by Velgos:

APPAREL: Older resident noted that there’s not enough clothing for children and older adults (there is a need for more casual rather than trendy clothing). Target or Old Navy is where some residents shop for those items now. But largest vacant space is Pearl (22,000 square feet) and that may not be big enough for a Target or Old Navy. And would bringing in a big store hurt other smaller businesses? Raymond noted that all the boutiques have already been kicked out so there’s no one left to hurt, while Johnson noted that big-box stores have a formula — how much money earned per square foot. If the formula won’t work for them, they won’t come in.

GENERAL MERCHANDISE: Where do residents go to buy material, thread, kitchenwares, etc.? Someone mentioned that Gadgets in Jamaica Plain is very popular, and has kitchenware.

COMMENT: Central Square has good cheap stores, and then upper-end shops such as Central Bottle + Flour Bakery. Arethe  needs of Central Square residents being met by these two categories, or is there a category in between that’s neglected? And what about the needs of those who work here and go home to somewhere else? We have many workers — their needs should be met, too. Estella mentions that they get off the T and take the march toward Kendall each day. What is the vision? For workers? For residents?

COMMENT: Central Square has nightlife covered, but what about daytime? It currently is a place where people run errands and leave. How do we make their stay longer? Is the answer boutiques for browsing? Or would a larger retail store make for a longer experience in the square?

COMMENT by Estella: Don’t forget the student population and their needs. They also have money.

COMMENT: We need general merchandise and kid stores, and stores for older people. Would an H&M be a possibility? Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx? Johnson, though, said retail is a lagging industry. We will continue to hear about store closings. Even the survival of Macy’s is in question.  And independent stores have less buying power, so their goods are more expensive.

COMMENT: Perez said, “Eating goes with shopping. After you shop you want to eat. Central Square has the eating, but not the shopping.”

MATH TUTORING VENUE: The resident who suggested such a venue at an early meeting was present, and described how Central Square, with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Techology, could support a tutoring center like the one in Roxbury called 826 Boston, but with a focus on math instead of writing and literacy. The Roxbury site has a retail storefront with an eye-catching theme and serves a range of people 6 and older with a large volunteer corps. Its street-level visibility in the community has been its greatest asset, and it receives many donations.

COMMENT: The reason the math tutoring center was on the topics list was because residents at prior meetings saw it as addressing the needs of children, and not much of Central Square is child-oriented, Johnson said. Perez also commented on what seems to be a growing presence of children in Central Square.

It was an overwhelming list, and there was only time to talk about half of the discussion topics.

“In the end it wasn’t surprising that we struggled to come up with ‘next steps’ to pursue, and left that as homework for next time,” Velgos said. “I usually have good ideas, but walked home feeling inadequate and defeated.”

The group did, however, produce a mission statement: “Attract retail stores to address the basic and specialized needs of a diverse population.”

The next meeting date is not set.