Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Expressing a wish to be careful voting whether to encourage a landmarking study of the so-called Curious George building in Harvard Square, councillor Tim Toomey made it impossible for the City Council to vote on the issue at all.

The council’s Monday meeting included an order to “go on record in support of asking the Cambridge Historical Commission to initiate a landmark designation study process on the Abbot Building,” and the commission is scheduled to meet Jan. 5 to decide whether to undertake a study, said Charles Sullivan, its executive director.

Toomey invoked his “charter right” to delay council action by one meeting. But the next council meeting doesn’t take place for several weeks, until after the holidays. It’s scheduled for Jan. 9, four days after the commission votes.

The delay is to allow Toomey to tour the site and see the Abbot building. “I honestly fear I don’t even know which one it is,” he said.

The problem with timing was noted by councillor Nadeem Mazen. “It’s important that we move on this before Jan. 5,” he said. “It would be apropos to withdraw an intention to charter right unless the intention is to delay this past the point where it would be useful.”

Toomey responded sharply, saying Mazen “infers whatever he wants to infer of people’s motives” but there was no ulterior motive – he just wanted to find out more about the building and plans for it.

While The World’s Only Curious George Store is prominent in the Abbot Building because it’s at street level, the 5 JFK St. structure built in 1909 also hosts several other retail and office spaces, including the corporate listing for the offices of the “Car Talk” radio show with its iconic third-floor window display for the mock firm of Dewey, Cheetham & Howe.

The building was bought by developer Equity One in October in a $85 million deal that would see it joined with connecting buildings at 18 Brattle St. and 9-11 JFK St., called the Corcoran Building and now home to an Urban Outfitters store, into a block-long, multistory retail and office space called The Collection at Harvard Square. The Curious George store would be gone, replaced mainly by an entryway to a second-story tenant.

The project has been a prime topic among residents and city officials for weeks. It inspired both a Change.Org petition signed by 5,824 people, three sittings before the commission and a Dec. 13 committee meeting attended by city planners, historical experts and representatives of Equity One and other area developers.

Toomey, a lifelong Cambridge resident and city councillor for nearly 30 years, wasn’t among the five councillors at the committee meeting. Craig Kelley attended, and on Monday asked for a tour of historical Harvard Square to identify precisely where contiguous buildings began and ended and their individual statuses in terms of development protections. Although he asked for the tour to happen “soon,” perhaps in the next week or two, his request of Sullivan wasn’t tied to the vote before the council.

Addressing Sullivan, Toomey connected the two:

“I was going to vote for this earlier – to initiate the study and see what happens, not necessarily to landmark it, but there’s a lot of misinformation, it seems, and all sorts of different comments here this evening. So I want to put caution to the wind and join councillor Kelley in arranging a tour and probably get a more behind-the-scenes and more up-close viewpoint of this and discussion of what is taking place. In the interest of those who want to go on the tour to see this building – I honestly fear I don’t even know which one it is, [though] I know Curious George, and where it begins and ends. I will charter right it to the next meeting while we have that tour … I will sign up with you and councillor Kelley as soon as possible.”

Protections offered

Landmarking the Abbot building might not affect Equity One’s plans significantly; it would protect the building’s exterior, which already looks much the same in project renderings provided by the company. (“We stop at the glass,” Sullivan said, referring to the limitations of historical protections.) The protection is also unnecessary, Sullivan said, because it’s “redundant” with what’s offered by the existing Harvard Square Conservation District.

“In fact, landmarks are designated under the same ordinance as conservation districts,” Sullivan said. “The level of protection is the same.”

Councillor Jan Devereux, who filed the motion with co-sponsors Mazen, councillor Dennis Carlone and vice mayor Marc McGovern, referred to backing a landmarking study anyway as a “belt and suspenders” approach.

She also referred to it as a step that “does stop the clock on major changes” on a project such as Equity One’s. (A representative of the developer said at Devereux’s Economic Development & University Relations committee meeting that there would be no construction until 2018.)

Untrue, Sullivan told Devereux.

“A landmark study designation does not stop the clock. I’m afraid you’re misinformed,” he said. “There are no clocks to be stopped.”

This post was updated Dec. 21 to correct a reference to a City Council roundtable that was actually a committee meeting.