Officials seek to calm concerns on process deciding future of Harvard Square kiosk
City officials labored Monday to assure citizens that plans for remaking the Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square were not proceeding without public input and process – including that a design was not set and that using an architect who was on the board of the Harvard Square Business Association was not a conflict of interest.
Some half-dozen people spoke up during public comment to express confusion and alarm over plans for the iconic, city-owned kiosk, which dates back to 1928 as a part of Harvard Square’s brick plaza but, with the current tenant’s lease to run a newsstand ending this year, needs a new purpose. Some $4.6 million has tentatively been set aside for work on the kiosk and plaza over three years.
Comment ran from the beseeching – “What exactly is underway?” resident James Williamson asked. “How far along are we?” – to the accusatory, with architectural historian Marilee Meyer and others saying the business association had “stacked the deck” in slipping in its own designer in board member Ted Galante. She was concerned by the “lack of transparency,” and complained that “one has to be hyper-vigilant even to glimpse information.”
This is not the first time suspicion has flared over the kiosk process. In February, members of the City Council were the ones expressing alarm.
“The integrity of that building is protected by the Historic Commission, and we’re going to engage in a longer community process as we’ve all discussed,” said Richard C. Rossi, city manager through September, when he retires. “We have a good partnership with the Harvard Square Business Association and the community, all working for the same goal – this is a public space, which you as the City Council will be able to question us [about] as we go along. Nobody’s going to wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh my god, what happened?’ I just want to say that for the record.”
Design contracts for the kiosk and surrounding plaza are in place, but a design has not been set, said Kathy Watkins, city engineer. Construction is expected to go out to bid in early spring, with the work expected to take 18 months to finish – and with the current tenant, by special arrangement, not moving out until work starts, to avoid having a landmark empty in Harvard Square for an extended time. Conversations about uses for the structure would take place during construction. (Rossi’s hope for the square, though not necessarily for the kiosk, was to have a giant screen where events such as council inaugurations, Red Sox games and presidential debates could be watched by a crowd in the open air.)
Because the kiosk is only about 500 square feet, officials have entertained the idea of removing its magazine racks for a design that can be entirely open on at least one side. A computer-aided design released by Galante online maintains the kiosk’s distinctive roof atop brick columns and glass walls. Historical Commission executive director Charles Sullivan said at a June 23 meeting that the kiosk was “meant to be transparent to converging traffic,” and the transparency has been a goal since at least May 2014, with the release of a Harvard Square Vision Plan document.
Who will run the kiosk, and for what purposes, will be based on those months of public input on programming, which will be led by a working group of citizens, said Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development. At one time, the business association was to be handed the right to run the structure. Because any sort of event might wind up in the kiosk, and because programming two years from now might be very different than what’s wanted 10 years from now, the kiosk must be built for “maximum flexibility.”
On Monday, Rossi assured the council that the work of the programming group would be “all very public, all very open, and you will not be the last to know, I promise.”
None of which really answered the charges of a conflict of interest in awarding a design contract to The Galante Architecture Studio of Cambridge and New York – whose founding principal is indeed on the HSBA board of directors – and that information on the kiosk project was elusive to the average person. While the selection of designers for the kiosk and plaza are in place, and a rough schedule for the work has been set, no documents have made it online outlining any of the steps that have been taken. It’s not listed among the Community Development Department’s “current projects,” although the long-completed “Harvard Square placemaking” topic there includes a note of the June 23 meeting under the header of “the latest” news. The previous notifications are for meetings Jan. 14 and June 17, 2015. Nothing about the kiosk is included under the page’s “documents” tab.
Prompted by councillor David Maher, the city manager expressed exasperation with the idea that there was a conflict of interest in Galante’s selection. “A ridiculous statement,” Rossi said. “When people make statements that are unfounded like that, I find them ridiculous.”
Galante was chosen as part of the city’s “house doctor” system, which keeps businesses vetted by city departments on standby to speed up necessary work. “We have a designer selection process,” Rossi said, noting the same system was used to start work on renovations at the King School and City Hall – another Galante job. “Our purchasing agent would never allow us to sign a contract with anyone [if] we didn’t follow [the rules].”
The city could still turn to another architect, Rossi said, “but so far, I would say, we are all making progress.”