Sunday, June 16, 2024

Food court diners in University Hall near Cambridge’s Porter Square on July 11, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A plan for Lesley University’s languishing University Hall in Porter Square was quietly overturned this summer, and now a Tuesday statement says the future of at least one of its prominent, long-empty storefronts won’t be known until the spring.

Owners of the food court restaurants inside the 1815 Massachusetts Ave. building – a former Sears owned by Lesley that is often still called the Porter Exchange – said in July 2022 that designers working for the university were measuring them for a move into a street corner location that was once a Shaking Crab restaurant. It opened in late 2017 and was closed by the Covid pandemic, and has been empty since – along with a former urgent care clinic, bank branch and Bourbon Coffee shop. 

That plan was confirmed in a June 23 interview with Lesley president Janet Steinmayer, who said the relocation has been happening but had been slowed by engineering complications such as 3-feet walls that Sears adopted for construction after Chicago fires.

“I won’t bore you with all of the technical difficulties, but it’s just been much more complicated [than expected] to figure out how to create the space,” Steinmayer said. “The move into the Shaking Crab space is dependent on a fair amount of highly technical work.”

The relocation of the eateries was to make room for a concierge desk for students and a gallery for the sale of art by students and alumni.

Less than a month after Steinmayer’s statement, a sales brochure for the site from the Graffito leasing firm showed that there were three retail spaces available along Massachusetts Avenue – 1,781 square feet that was Bourbon Coffee; 4,401 square feet of former Webster Bank; and 2,000 square feet of ex-Partners urgent care clinic – but with all existing food stalls staying in place and the Shaking Crab location still identified as a “full-service restaurant.”

A leasing brochure map of University Hall from July 18.

Lesley was asked immediately for clarification on the July 18 brochure. 

As the weeks passed, requests for information were renewed as to what it meant that the sales pitch to prospective tenants showed the layout of University Hall staying the same.

Sixty-four days later, Lesley released a statement confirming that it wasn’t relocating the restaurants:

“Lesley University is considering a number of options for the space formerly occupied by the Shaking Crab,” it said. “We do expect to have some information on the former Shaking Crab space in the spring. In the meantime, please step inside and visit our current restaurants.”

University Hall is still adding amenities for students to become a one-stop location for such needs as information technology, advising and registration. The art gallery is also still coming, the school said, “and a creative and collaborative space for faculty and students, and a co-working space for alumni.”

Empty storefronts have been a longtime complaint of residents in the area, and Lesley’s block of largely dead space has drawn attention. Author Michael Moscariello complained online Sept. 1 of sites that “sit around being untouched and empty like Shaking Crab (why is the sign still lit up?!), the urgent care, Bank of America, city bank, Bourbon coffee, as well? This is my neck of the town, and we need people to move in to those places!”