Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Middle East nightclub and restaurant complex would be torn down and replaced in a plan before the Cambridge Historical Commission. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The developer who wants to demolish and replace The Middle East nightclub and restaurant complex was told Thursday by the Cambridge Historical Commission to come back with more detail.

The building would include a hotel, restaurant and multiple music venues that would be continue to be run by the Saters, the family that has been operating the Middle East venues since 1969, commissioners were shown in a presentation. Before deciding whether to issue a demolition permit, commissioners wanted to see further plans about what Massachusetts Avenue storefronts would look like in the new project and the design of the building as part of the overall streetscape, as well as for the preservation of murals.

Patrick Barrett, the developer who represents the Saters, was amenable to a continuance, but wanted the commission to give specifics on preserving the mural “Crosswinds,” on the Brookline Street side of the existing building. 

Daniel Galvez, who created the piece, “relied on the community for ideas, including images from local photographer Jeff Dunn, to show the ‘multicultural spirit’ of Central Square,” according to a commission report citing the Cambridge Arts agency. The mural was restored by Galvez in 2016.

Preservation of a Daniel Galvez mural on Brookline Street is one concern of commissioners. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“We don’t plan to simply ignore it, at the very minimum,” Barrett said. Among options for the piece would be to memorialize it in the new building, “and then we have a couple of ideas of how to actually put on a new mural very similar to what’s there now, sort of as a modern representation. We’re talking to the artists about that now.”

There is no way to preserve the actual mural, and any attempt to preserve or store it would end in it crumbling, Barrett said. There are already plans to capture images of the mural, but he does not know whether they would be used as part of a memorial, or on a building down the street.

Public commenters were mostly supportive of the project, but some agreed that there was not enough detail in Barrett’s plan. An image released by Barrett early in the process was seized on by critics as boxy and colorless – but was just a placeholder, he said, and not representative of the final look and feel of the building that would go up.

Maxine Patwardhan, while generally favoring the direction of the project, expressed concern that there was not adequate commitment to preservation. “I am not really sure how you make a decision on whether we’re preserving something if we don’t have real plans,” Patwardhan told commissioners. 

Michael Monestime, a former music promoter and former executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District, recognized the concerns but was confident Barrett has a “great plan” in response. He also highlighted the importance of cultural legacy of the building and that it continue in a new building.

“The experience inside the walls has a lot of significance. We fought like dogs all throughout Covid pushing off developers who wanted to bring labs to the site,” Monestime said. “For this to come back with a music venue is amazing. You just don’t see that – and we won’t get that in any other package.”

Barrett, whose bands have performed on Middle East stages, said he’s intent on bringing the music back.

“If we don’t try to help revitalize and preserve these assets, then they’re simply going to go away,” Barrett said.