Family clash over sale of Brattle buildings could be ‘destabilizing’ for Harvard Square (update)
The Dow and Stearns families are breaking up after a century, with the Dows looking to cash out and sell their two prominent buildings in Harvard Square for a total of $95 million.
In two cases filed in Massachusetts Land Court in April, the Dow family trust wants to sell the historic Brattle Building at 1-8 Brattle for $25 million and the 17-41A Brattle assembly for $70 million. The Brattle Building houses Black Ink, Cardullo’s and Origins, as well as the former Tory Row and Crimson Corner spaces that may soon become the &pizza and Milk Bar eateries; it has two floors of office above. The largely single-story 17-41A assembly goes from Rebekah Brooks to Concepts, including Felipe’s Taqueria, Brattle Square Florists and Crimson Corner’s new location.
“Change is coming down the pike,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.
The families sold the Abbot Building complex across the street for $85 million in October 2015 to real estate developer Equity One, now owned by Regency Centers. That sale has fueled rising rents throughout the square, and these upcoming sales could worsen that.
The Dow family, which owns a 50 percent interest in each property, “seeks partition by sale and equitable distribution of proceeds of said sale” and believes a physical division of the properties among the owners to be impractical. The court petitions were signed by Pamela Dow Brown of Newburyport and Wells Blanchard Dow of Princeton, Mass., representing Brattle Square Properties LLC.
The remaining 50 percent is owned by two Stearns trusts: 33 percent by Stearns Brattle Street LLC, managed by Nancy W. Doyle of Westwood and Gary Doyle of Portsmouth, N.H.; and 17 percent by the Marshall W. Stearns Trust LLC managed by Elizabeth D. Stearns of New York City.
“In recent years, the property has been managed on a day-to-day basis by members of the Stearns family,” joint court filings said. Gary Doyle has been active in the management of the properties, including finding &pizza and fighting to get them as a tenant.
“The Stearns family and the Dow family have managed the Brattle Street Property successfully for more than 100 years together. The pending partition action is merely one possible conclusion to that partnership,” said Nicholas O’Donnell of Sullivan & Worcester, representing the Doyles and the 33 percent Stearns interest.
Attorneys for the Dow family declined to comment on the pending litigation. Attorneys for the 17 percent Stearns interest did not respond to an inquiry. Both Stearns family trusts filed pro forma responses asking the court to deny the partition action.
“The parties disagree as to the necessity of partition, and further as to the appropriate remedy in the event partition is proper (including, for example, the possible division of the properties among the parties),” according to a joint statement from all sides to the court in May.
“The proverbial other shoe has dropped in Harvard Square, an inevitable consequence of the same family trust’s record-setting sale in 2015 of its other linchpin property across Brattle Street,” city councillor Jan Devereux said. “Major changes in ownership and tenancy like the ones we are seeing in Harvard Square can have a destabilizing effect on neighborhoods.”
But Devereux also sees a silver lining, saying the changes present an opportunity to revitalize Harvard Square, and that there is renewed urgency to review the Harvard Square Conservation District guidelines (which apply to both properties) and to update the zoning to “preserve the character, history and diversity” of the square.
“This sale adds to the economic precariousness of the square for local merchants already facing sky-high leases and likely will add new challenges to preservation efforts here as well,” said Suzanne Blier, a Harvard architectural historian and founder of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association.
Charlie Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, said he was not surprised by the potential sale: “Once they sold the property across the street it was obvious that the old real estate trust owners were breaking up and selling.”
Generally retail tenants seemed unaware of the litigation. Tom Brush, owner of Felipe’s and Flat Patties, said he had wanted to expand Felipe’s roof deck over the adjacent Hidden Sweets candy store, but that the family ownership was reluctant to permit that until they knew what might replace Hidden Sweets – now vacant since last year. Brush was aware of conflict within the families, but didn’t know litigation had been filed.
Retail leases in the 17-41A property run through 2023 and 2025 in some cases, according to a listing filed with the court.
Sullivan said both buildings have “a strong preservation value.” One-to-8 Brattle St. was built in 1913 by George Dow and Harry Stearns, who later organized the Dow-Stearns Trust, and designed by Newhall & Blevins, architects of the Abbot Building, from which it took its architectural cues. Another contribution was an influential report the Harvard Square Business Association did around the same time recommending Georgian Revival architecture as being the standard for the square.
The other grouping, 17-41A, is made up of a half-dozen buildings rebuilt in the 1930s with an Art Modern façade, the concrete face. “That’s also got a high preservation value,” Sullivan said.
One six-story building had been in the mix at 17-25 Brattle, built in 1875 as a mate to its neighbor that houses The Gap and the Beat Brasserie. It was taken down to one story in the 1930s.
“Several prominent architects were involved in that design, George Dow and Harry Stearns … assembled that site, they had the concept in the 1930s of making Brattle Square a shopping center for suburban housewives in West Cambridge and Arlington and Lexington and so on. So they assembled a grouping of stores that would appeal to that market and redeveloped those buildings with a modern facade,” Sullivan said. “So, both for its architecture and for its history in Brattle Square, that’s definitely a significant building.”
Both buildings are in the Harvard Square Conservation District and National Register of Historic Places, and any development proposal for 17-41A would be scrutinized carefully, he said.
“The tension arises because it’s a one-story building on a site with an 80-foot height limit” and a 4.0 floor/area ratio, he said.
A development could either preserve the historic ground-floor level and build above it, or conceivably demolish and replace the existing low-rise buildings if the project were deemed of sufficient merit by the Historical Commission.
As for 1-8 Brattle St., Sullivan said demolition of that building was almost “unthinkable.”
On May 31, Land Court Judge Keith Long, handling the 17-41A case, ordered the parties to determine whether a physical division of the property was “possible and practical.”
On June 13, Long heard from the parties and concluded that a physical division was infeasible and ordered the families to approach several real estate brokers to determine what they would charge and how they would market the properties. The brokers were Jones Lang Lasalle, CB Richard Ellis, Colliers International/Meredith & Grew and “potentially” Holliday Fenoglio Fowler. Both buildings are currently managed by Colliers.
The reports from those brokers are due at a status conference Monday morning.
Little is known about potential buyers for the properties. Representatives of billionaire investor Gerald Chan, who has acquired many properties within Harvard Square within recent years, did not respond to an inquiry last week.
Update on July 17, 2017: The parties told Long on Monday that they hoped to get the properties on the market by Labor Day. Having heard back from broker candidates July 11 (adding Newmark Knight Frank, which did the Abbot Building sale), the Stearns defendants told Long they wanted a chance to do interviews, whereas the Dow plaintiffs had decided their preference. The parties will be back in court Aug. 2 to report their choice or have Long choose for them. Aside from attorneys and reporters, only Gary Doyle was in attendance.