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Carl Barron Plaza in Central Square is due to host a pilot program with pushcarts and street performers. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Carl Barron Plaza in Central Square is due to host a pilot program with pushcarts and street performers. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Even as the city moves to bring performers and pushcarts to enliven a blighted crossroads of Central Square, elected officials are skeptical the effort can overcome the gloom of its backdrop.

“I want to make sure we temper some of the expectations, because that plaza is just not an inviting plaza, period … Until that is a nicer spot for people to congregate and sit, I think we’re going to do a pilot program that may not yield the kind of results it would yield if it were a nicer place to be,” councillor Marc McGovern said Monday at a meeting of the City Council, referring to Carl Barron Plaza and a policy order proposed by vice mayor Dennis Benzan and councillor Leland Cheung.

The plaza at Massachusetts Avenue and Western Avenue was dedicated in the late 1980s to the since deceased furniture leasing magnate Carl F. Barron, the unofficial “mayor” of Central Square, but despite its location at the nexus of transportation and a design featuring brick, benches and literally welcoming art – brick, metal and glass columns that greet visitors in a variety of languages – the area has languished. In an official December 2011 red ribbon report on the square, the plaza and the people most frequently found there were identified as making new residents “uncomfortable.”

Exacerbating the problem is ground-floor retail space on the plaza that has been empty for years, making a Cambridge Savings Bank branch the only active, accessible space facing it.

“Regardless of who’s sitting there – that plaza could be completely empty and I wouldn’t want to sit there,” McGovern said, citing its uncomfortable seats, lack of tables and poor lighting.

Other councillors agreed, and started envisioning improvements. Dennis Carlone suggested that a fountain would be good addition as being welcoming especially to children and serving to soften the sounds of traffic from buses and cars.

The pilot program, though, is to bring in pushcarts and performers with an eye toward perfecting a formula for space allocation, applications, permitting requirements and design that could be copied elsewhere in Central Square and throughout the city.

Officials from the Community Development Department, License Commission, Inspectional Services Department, Arts Council, Police Department and Department of Public Works have been working on an approach they will bring to the council, City Manager Richard C. Rossi said. They understood there would have to be outreach to get the program rolling, with councillor Nadeem Mazen saying he doubted there would be many new vendors and performers hoping to claim spots.

“We want this to succeed, so if we had new, younger or less experienced vendors, we’ll certainly work with them as a team to guide them through this. We won’t just leave them to fend for themselves,” Rossi said.

Carlone, an urban designer, said having food on the plaza would be another big step toward making the plaza work. “Every study I know of indicates food is essential to making public space active a joy to be in,” he said, suggesting that future zoning clarify what kind of retail goes in next to public spaces – ideally food with outdoor seating.

But a cap on fast-food businesses in the square and laws keeping peddlers from competing with holders of so-called common victualer licenses means the pushcarts can sell only merchandise, not food, Assistant City Manager Lisa Peterson said. Although McGovern didn’t think pushcart food would compete with local restaurants, a change in zoning and License Commission rules would be needed.

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