Dramatic changes to Harvard Square plaza, Au Bon Pain, are at Planning Board tonight
Changes to two of Harvard Square’s most prominent landmarks get hearings tonight and Wednesday, with the first being Harvard’s plan for Forbes Plaza at the Holyoke Center. It is scheduled to be before the Planning Board at 7 p.m.
A meeting about the future of the the Out of Town News kiosk next to the square’s T station follows Wednesday evening.
The Forbes Plaza plan, shown in renderings from Harvard, eliminates much of the open-air dining at the Au Bon Pain across the street from the T station entrance on Massachusetts Ave., claiming about a quarter of the public plaza.
The Au Bon Pain location opened in 1984 – one of the fast-casual bakery and café chain’s first locations and called its flagship – and has been a vital part of Harvard Square for locals and tourists since, with its late-night hours, public toilets and large outdoor seating area with built-in and well-used chess boards. Au Bon Pain was asked by Cambridge Day to comment about its future in the square.
Harvard’s designs show a generic cafe indoors with less outdoor seating but a two-story glass “pavilion” that includes an information booth and, in a similar glass structure across an arcade, a more obvious ticketing and event information booth than the one now deep inside the university’s Holyoke Center. The new design for the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center includes chess tables as well, inside and out.
A presentation at a Harvard Square Advisory Committee meeting last week said the glassed-in area would be “shared space” but open only during restaurant tenant business hours, according to resident James Williamson.
In addition to the Planning Board meeting tonight, the plans need a variance from city zoning and are expected to get a June 25 hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeal.
The changes began as a city process in 2013 with a “place-making” process run by the Community Development Department, “but Harvard is going into its own process,” said Ellen Kokinda, an assistant planner at the department who is serving as the public face of the overall project. “The majority of Forbes Plaza is Harvard’s.”
Harvard “used a lot from our place-making meetings” to form its vision for the plaza, Kokinda said.
In addition to the street-level changes, there are plans to install a “highly transparent projecting bay” at the 10th-floor roofline. It allows people using the Harvard meeting and event spaces to look out over the plaza, Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Yard. The university calls it “a civic gesture to Harvard Square, creating a new beacon” at the roofline.
Harvard construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2016, according to the school’s submission to the Planning Board, with the opening scheduled for the fall of 2018. The project designers are London’s Hopkins Architects, with Cambridge’s Bruner/Cott as executive architect.
The city’s place-making meetings looked at Harvard Square overall and came up with what Kokinda called a series of “lighter, quicker, cheaper changes” that could be done to improve the square quickly, such as adding greenery and public outdoor seating – including some that replaced the crumbling “Omphalos” sculpture by artist and Harvard professor Dimitri Hadzi, which lasted at the site for about 30 years. (See the place-making report here.)
Out of Town News
The iconic Out of Town News kiosk has been in its location on the brick central plaza of Harvard Square since 1984, and there was a panic in 2008 when Hudson News, the chain holding the lease, said it didn’t plan to renew – eased when a new tenant signed a five-year lease starting in 2009. Now the newsstand is managed by Muckey Corp. and still considered a vital, historic part of the square, albeit one that could do with a revamp.
The thinking of the place-making process has been “how do we make it more transparent and open to the plaza,” Kokinda said. Any changes to the stand – which, unlike the bulk of Forbes Plaza, is a public asset, would be “down the road,” with the Wednesday meeting considered a small step along the way.
“The is not going to be a last meeting, but a discussion of the concept,” Kokinda said.
The newsstand meeting takes place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of the Smith Campus Center, 1344 Massachusetts Ave. The entrance is next to the Cambridge Trust office, to the left of the main entrance. A sign is to be placed on the door indicating the location.
The outdoor plaza could use a little TLC but the space is plenty welcoming as it is. Enclosing a quarter of it chips away at the street life that gives Harvard Square its soul and energy.
The glass is at least half full on this one. Big H has included large, right up front public restrooms in exactly the right place for Harvard Square’s biggest problem. The University rep will appear next Thursday with a full sales pitch and the public comment opportunity absent at the planning meeting. I’m highly impressed that the University’s package already includes a place to pee for all. Harvard will bear the full installation, 24/7 maintenance, and security costs. Let’s just get it in writing.
Overall, I view the new plaza very favorably.
Gary, you’re right, public restrooms are definitely a welcome relief (sorry!), but I only see one multi-stalled “public restroom” in the lower left corner of the 1st floor renderings attached here (behind ticketing services, not visible from plaza) — I can’t find another restroom. Unfortunately the BZA does not post materials and plans on its website, unlike the Planning Board, making it harder for the public to comment knowledgeably. And why do you think there is no public comment at next week’s hearing? The meeting notice doesn’t say that. Jan