Monday, May 20, 2024

&pizza’s Drew Murphy, center with blue blazer, listens to public comment during the Harvard Square Advisory Committee meeting on April 19. (Photo: John Hawkinson)

Will &pizza will be allowed to replace the Tory Row restaurant and old Crimson Corner newsstand spaces in Harvard Square? The final decision should come Thursday night when the Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to hear &pizza’s request for a fast food special permit, a hearing that’s been continued twice already.

Unless it gets continued again.

The Washington, D.C., pizza chain already got a sharp “No” from the Historical Commission in January in proposing an outdoor trellis for the location. It changed plans, delaying a fast food permit hearing; it is no longer seeking outdoor changes that require a public hearing of the commission.

Drew Murphy, &pizza’s development manager, was much more successful last Thursday presenting to the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, and receiving four votes for a nonbinding recommendation, with one against and one abstention.

The zoning board’s vote is the only one that really counts, though, and its criteria are strict for this type of permit. It must find that &pizza “fulfills a need for such a service in the neighborhood or in the city,” which is a tough standard in Harvard Square, where many existing restaurants already serve pizza.

The chairman of the board, Constantine Alexander, almost always votes against such fast food permits, believing such a need can almost never be shown. Other members tend to be more flexible; Alexander called himself “vox clamantis in deserto – a voice crying out in the wilderness.”

Uncertainty over procedure, deadlines

&pizza has been very last-minute with submissions and deadlines. Despite being told in January and again in March that revised plans “must be in our files no later than 5 p.m. on the Monday before” the hearing, &pizza didn’t file revised plans until after 3 p.m. Tuesday.

In January, Alexander cautioned &pizza: “If you come in on the night of hearing, and say, ‘Oh, we want to do this, change the plans,’ we’ll just continue the case further. We won’t hear it.”

But in March, when &pizza asked for its second continuance, Alexander also said, “Generally the rule is two strikes you’re out. Baseball it’s three strikes you’re out. So if we’re going to continue the case again, absent compelling, very compelling circumstances, we’re not going to continue it further.”

It’s not clear how the zoning board will resolve the conflict. Members could go forward and hear the case, continue it or deny it.

&pizza was also late with plan submissions to the advisory committee last week. Although it provided a revised plan in advance, at the meeting a still-newer seating plan was passed around on a cellphone to committee members, but was not available for real review.

Harvard Square activist Suzanne Blier expressed frustration that she had been scheduled to review the latest plans with Murphy beforehand, but somehow that didn’t go forward and she still hadn’t seen the current plans.

Changes from earlier plans

The original design proposal by &pizza included a trellis that drew a sharp “No” from the Historical Commission.

Designs next swapped the trellis for a single black awning.

The &pizza design has gone through substantial changes from the two sets of plans presented to the Historical Commission in January, as well as the initial submission to the zoning board.

A permanent outdoor trellis was initially replaced with a large black awning that spanned the outdoor seating area. After neighborhood feedback that the awning was too long, it was divided into two sections. After the advisory committee’s feedback, one half of the awning was replaced by umbrellas at outdoor tables.

&pizza also moved its primary entrance from Massachusetts Avenue around the corner to Brattle Street, the same location as the previous Crimson Corner entrance.

Advisory committee feedback

Neighbor feedback led to a design that is half awning, half umbrellas.

The advisory committee meeting ran a full two hours, and focused on many details of the &pizza day-to-day operation. The city’s Community Development Department produced a three-page report, with additional written comment from some members.

The committee advocated strongly for “colorful umbrellas” instead of an awning, for flexibility in offering shade and to help break-up the long storefront. &pizza’s current proposal includes black umbrellas, replacing half of the awning.

It expressed concerns with the sufficiency of the written submission, including the seating plan, operational plans and information on recycling, waste disposal and delivery. These issues related to zoning criteria for the special permit are typically not difficult criteria to meet.

Several members felt &pizza’s black was “difficult to work with,” and should be reduced as much as possible.

Three committee members, two of whom did not attend the meeting and did not vote, felt the pizza use was “ordinary” and thus “not in keeping with the needs of the square.”

Frank Kramer, a founder of business group Cambridge Local First, wrote that “the fast food ordinance requires that the applicant show a hardship. If the hardship is on the basis of lack of pizza offerings, I see no need for another pizza shop in this subdistrict, especially in this extremely high-profile location that visually impacts the character of Harvard Square for the person on the street.” Kramer went on to note five pizza locations in the immediate area, and another six that offer pizza but don’t specialize in it.

Lauren Curry and Kramer wrote that combining the Tory Row and Crimson Corner storefronts into a single establishment was in conflict with the Harvard Square Conservation District’s requirement to retain “narrow storefronts” in the Massachusetts Avenue subdistrict.

Kari Kuelzer, proprietor of restaurant Grendel’s Den, who attended but abstained from voting, echoed the concern, saying it would “negatively impact the established character and adjacent uses.”

John DiGiovanni, principal of Trinity Property Management and longtime head of the Harvard Square Business Association, presided over the meeting, and ultimately lent his strong support. DiGiovanni said he didn’t think he could be “omniscient” in knowing the true need for pizza, noting that Belmont Center has three pizza places.

Pebble Gifford, founder of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, was solidly opposed. Unlike many committee members, she expressed concern if the venue were overfull rather than empty, and suggested &pizza would leave the square “stuck with very ordinary fare” and never be the kind of destination Harvard Square needs.

Additional wide-ranging discussion addressed &pizza’s stated desire to apply for an alcohol license in the future, and how that might pose compliance challenges for its outdoor seating. The viability of breakfast pizzas was also a concern.

City councillor Jan Devereux attended and spoke in opposition, saying she “tried really hard to keep an open mind to this use for this pivotal location,” but that “I can’t get enthusiastic about it.”

“I see a brand claiming one of the corners of Harvard Square that should be an anchor,” Devereux said.

Ultimately DiGiovanni voted to recommend the special permit, joined by members Alexandra Offiong of the Harvard Planning Office, landscape architect Allison Crosbie and architect Matt Simitis. Gifford voted against, with Kuelzer abstaining.

Last-minute historical feedback?

At the advisory meeting, Murphy tried to justify the last-minute nature of the plans, saying his architect “literally worked around the clock” to address required modifications in response to what the Historical Commission said could be approved without a public hearing, and that “we have worked on the appearance from January up through today.”

But &pizza did not communicate with the historical staff between their rejection Jan. 5 and April 13, one week before the advisory committee hearing, staff said.