Monday, May 20, 2024

City councillor Ken Reeves speaks Wednesday to members of the Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights & Concerns of Central Square gathered in Novartis headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Rebranding Central Square and finding a way to control its unsavory elements were key points as more than 80 people gathered this week for the first meeting of the Red Ribbon Commission on the Delights & Concerns of Central Square, led by Cambridge city councillor Ken Reeves.

“We want to hear from stakeholders, citizens, landlords and business owners alike, so that we can come together to cook up a vision that will serve Central Square for the next decade,” Reeves told people from local business and government gathered Wednesday in Novartis pharmaceuticals’ auditorium.

Among the findings of the group, as paraphrased from notes by Reeves assistant John Clifford:

“Central Square is the arts center/headquarters for Cambridge. This should be highlighted and brought into the square’s marketing and branding. The state is looking at designating cultural districts that include arts, restaurants and retail, and Central Square should become an early adopter of this program, since there is already so much love for Central Square in its culture, diversity, CCTV, art organizations, etc. Creating awareness of this as an arts district is going to continue economic development.”

A strategy using modern technology such as smartphone applications and social networking was needed, people said, and “should be promoted and used more.”

Having businesses voluntarily pay fees to form a Business Improvement District was proposed. The districts, seen in cities as close as Boston, take care of cleaning and security and could help resolve such issues (again paraphrased) as:

“The sidewalks are not safe for the elderly and need to be designed better for trash removal. Cleanliness was a major issue from a Central Square Customer Intercept Survey, and people should be encouraged to change their behavior so less trash is placed on the street and to take pride in and care for the square.”

Conduct in public spaces needs improvement, participants said, and panhandling must be dealt with. A “homeless café” was proposed so people could “just be” or work on their computers. “Many homeless people are using current coffee shops in the Square,” some said, “so why not provide an artistic or retail space for them?”

The possibility for more arts in the area also drew comments, including a suggestion to draw a Berklee College of Music presence. Noting the recent Kendall Square Association study by the Boston Consulting Group, there was a suggestion to use the synergy between Kendall, Central and Harvard square to create a “Future of Music” festival  —especially since the video game company Harmonix is based in Central Square — or to otherwise make the square into an experience, since many tourists go only to Harvard Square to get a “Cambridge experience.”

Noting that current retailers weren’t inviting to seniors and that young families have a hard time staying in the area, participants suggested new kinds of housing and retail to ensure the square reflected the neighborhood’s demographics and the residents’ wants and needs.

After and before

Tours of the square and the forming of subcommittees were next on the list of things to do for the group.

Participants included Reeves’ fellow councillor, Mayor David P. Maher; Dan Goldstein, owner of the Clear Conscience Café; George Metzger, president of the Central Square Business Association; Lisa Patterson, commissioner of the Department of Public Works; Charles Sullivan, director of the Historical Commission; Deputy City Manager Richard C. Rossi; Estella Johnson, Economic Development director; and Robert Haas, commissioner of the Cambridge Police Department. The department has been working with Goldstein and others in a small working group meeting Wednesday at his café; the commission expands those efforts.

“By definition tactics are short-term. The police department is excited to be a part of this group’s work to produce long-term, sustainable strategies and solutions to change the dynamics of Central Square,” Haas said.

Reeves led a similar commission in 1993 resulting in a $3.5 million improvement plan that, according to people involved in the effort, did such things as reduce the number of automobile lanes from to three from five, add bike lanes and intersection “bumpouts,” widen sidewalks (making possible the new emphasis on outdoor dining), install benches and artwork, relocate bus stops, plant trees and reconfigure lighting.

The commission is a yearlong project that will hold monthly meetings aimed at producing a final report with suggestions for improvements to the square.

The commission’s next meeting will be held at the Christian Life Center, 85 Bishop Allen Drive, Cambridge, at noon Sept. 29.

This post includes a significant amount of information from a press release.