&pizza regroups after its permit rejection, offering ‘milk &pizza’ for Harvard Square
Hipster D.C. eatery &pizza is back for a third try at replacing Crimson Corner and Tory Row in Harvard Square, this time partnering with award-winning desert and savory bakery Milk Bar to broaden the menu.
&pizza sidestepped a 7-0 rejection by the Historical Commission in January for a trellis deemed historically inappropriate and incongruous by removing the trellis.
In April, &pizza failed to win the fast food special permit required to open – four out of five zoning board votes were necessary, but it got three. Chairman Constantine Alexander felt the chain had not established a “need” for another pizza restaurant in Harvard Square; and vice chairman Brendan Sullivan said it had not satisfied the requirement to be “compatible with and sensitive to the visual and physical characteristics of [Harvard Square].”
Trying again won’t be easy.
Massachusetts law and Cambridge zoning specify a two-year blackout period in which an applicant cannot return without satisfying a tough standard: “consent” from a strong supermajority of the Planning Board (six of seven votes); and a finding by the Board of Zoning Appeal that there are “specific and material changes.” Only after that can the zoning board consider the case.
&pizza’s solution is to become “milk &pizza,” by teaming with Milk Bar, a Momofuku-associated business based in New York with 12 stores in the United States and Canada.
“We’ve listened to the community and heard loud and clear that they’re looking for more than just another pizza shop,” &pizza Chief Executive Michael Lastoria said in a press release Friday. “&pizza stands for connection, inclusion and unity, and joining forces with Milk Bar is a perfect example of how we will bring those values directly to Cambridge.”
Indeed, &pizza has tried hard throughout the process to be a good neighbor, agreeing in April almost sycophantically to myriad concessions extracted by neighbors and others to support Cambridge values: late-night hours; early morning breakfast service; providing major newspapers; paying a living wage and hiring local; replacing an awning with umbrellas; and exposing architectural details. About the only thing it didn’t agree to in April was changing the color of the umbrellas.
According to plans (PDF) submitted June 27, &pizza keeps its storefront design but adds a cursive pink “milk” in front of the white “&pizza” lettering. Umbrellas change from &pizza’s corporate black to “white with black and pink dots.” The black awning gains a bold pink and white stripe from the Milk Bar color palette.
In the interior, seating is reduced to 36 seats from 48, making space for a Milk Bar area on the side that once held the Crimson Corner newsstand; the 14 seasonal patio seats stay.
It’s not clear how &pizza intends to meet the “specific and material change” standard in the law. In a letter sent Wednesday to the Planning Board, &pizza attorney Karen Simao highlighted two changes:
“&pizza’s new concept attracts customers to eat in, reducing traffic and upholding the integrity of Harvard Square.
… The petitioner’s signage and layout are more compatible to other buildings and public spaces and will attract visitors due to its more colorful facade.”
It’s unclear how the new petition “reduces traffic.” At the April zoning hearing, one concern raised was double parking: “it’s hard to imagine a worse place in the square for [it],” North Cambridge resident Daniel Penrice told the board.
It is also unclear how much of the Milk Bar concept is new or a change. &pizza’s Drew Murphy told the board in April it was partnering with Milk Bar.
Simao, part of rotating cast of attorneys from McDermott, Quilty & Miller working on the project, also wrote that the “revised [interior] plans will utilize brighter colors and therefore appeal to visitors and increase consumerism within Harvard Square.” Their attorneys haven’t handled many zoning cases in Cambridge.
&pizza is expected to go to the Planning Board first, Cambridge zoning staff said Friday, so the process could be handled in two hearings (planning, then zoning) rather than three (zoning, then planning, then zoning again).
Reprising the April hearing
The April 27 zoning board hearing that rejected &pizza’s application was a drawn-out, two-hour affair.
It began with Alexander castigating &pizza for failing to comply with the board’s rules by submitting plans late – twice. “That’s a flagrant disobedience – disregard of our rules,” he said. Nonetheless, Alexander and the board agreed to “waive this failure to comply with our rules and proceed on the merits.”
As &pizza described the project,. Sullivan, the vice chairman, raised the issue of appearance early on: “It’s a very prominent corner and to me the black is stark. It doesn’t accentuate the corner. It’s cold.”
Murphy, &pizza’s development manager, acknowledged the Harvard Square Advisory Committee’s written report talked of minimizing black, and said “also they talked about using umbrellas to preserve the smaller storefronts. So we feel like we’ve reduced the amount of black. I guess it’s all subjective, ultimately.”
But the committee’s written report called for “colorful umbrellas” and labeled the black corporate color “difficult to work with.”
Then came public comment, an hour into the meeting. Harvard Square advocates Suzanne Blier, Marilee Meyer, Pebble Gifford, Ilan Levy and Abra Berkowitz all spoke against the permit, expressing concerns about accessibility, the character of the square, parking, the lack of need for another pizza venue, incompatibility with the rest of Harvard Square, appearance of the storefront, branding, concerns with the outdoor seating and more.
But then there was a turning point.
Or it’s gonna be a bank
“You’re right, there are five pizza places” already in the square, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “There are six burger joints. There are 13 coffee shops with one more coming. …There are three ice cream shops. There are six Mexican. Interestingly enough, there are eight eye care places. … But there’s another one coming.”
Jillson went on to enumerate the square’s overlapping uses and note its dozen retail vacancies.
“Before we make the decision about what should and should not go there, we need to consider what could go there. And what will be there that will support the community,” she said.
The many property owners – 17 members of a family trust – have to agree on what will go in the space and rejected Warby Parker, the high-end eyeglasses retailer that has found another space in the square. “They were not going to lease to another bank, but they were in fact okay with &pizza,” Jillson said. “It’s really important for all of us to understand what’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t see within: the owners of the building who do have some rights. And as of right, we know they could rent to a bank, and we know they could rent to high-end retailers and they don’t have to come here for permission to do that.”
Soon after, the owners appeared.
Gary Doyle, representing the Stearns family, spoke, highlighting his family’s stewardship of the building and other Harvard Square real estate for the past 103 years – noting its encouragement of Felipe’s Taqueria to expand, removing Bertucci’s pizza restaurant when it was “circling the drain [and] starting to look really, really shabby” and working with the Tory Row restaurant when it couldn’t pay “rents which were really rather quite substandard at the time.” They and other tenants “basically broke their lease” anyway, he said, closing in November.
Crimson Corner moved in April, freeing up a large combined space.
“And after a lot of soul searching – and argument – we passed up quite a few financial institutions to go with something that would provide some interesting transformational leadership in a restaurant operation in place where it had been a restaurant and was – to most of us, Crimson Corner’s pretty much of an eyesore if you’ve driven by it lately. We wanted that to get cleaned up. So we got a transformational restaurant not at the amount of money that we wanted, but they are really, really good at what they do. And they’re really a unique operation,” Doyle said.
“Honestly, if they don’t go in there, it’s gonna be a financial institution and we’ll end up making a bunch more money and you will have had all sorts of opportunities,” he said. “I’m not threatening. I’m basically stating a principle of business.”
The room got a lot quieter.
Three of the board swayed
The fear of another bank managed to convince a majority of the board, but that wasn’t enough.
“So I started out feeling like we didn’t need another pizza place,” Janet Green said. “But I think that there’s a real problem here … I think [Doyle] has spoken of the kind of offers that they’ve had and what they tried to do. And I was – I really took that quite seriously.
“We don’t want this property to be a financial institution. And from what I’ve seen how these businesses turn over, that may be our real option. In that case I’m inclined to vote for this proposition,” Green said.
Laura Wernick and Slater Anderson agreed. But that was three votes, and four were required. “The special permit has been denied,” Alexander said.