First he grabbed an apartment and retail building in the heart of Harvard Square. Months later, he bought another apartment and retail complex on the other side of John F. Kennedy Street. Then came the deal for a building known as the American Express travel office, quickly followed by the purchase of apartments behind the Harvard Lampoon office.
Over the course of 18 months — and without calling attention to himself — billionaire businessman Gerald L. Chan spent about $120 million to amass an impressive portfolio of Harvard Square real estate that includes nearly a dozen properties. Together, they give Chan — a Harvard University graduate and Newton resident — enough clout to influence the square’s look and character for years to come.
“Take Harvard University out of the equation, and I don’t know of anyone who owns more real estate in Harvard Square than he does,” said Peter Bekarian, executive vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm in Boston.
Chan and his brother, Ronald, control the Hang Lung Group, a leading Hong Kong real estate development and management company that has made them billionaires. Forbes pegs their combined wealth at nearly $3 billion.
Chan, 63, said in an e-mail that he doesn’t have a grand plan to reshape Harvard Square, a place cherished by many. He said he remains fond of the area from his days as a student at Harvard, where he received a master’s in medical radiological physics in 1975 and a doctorate in radiobiology in 1979. He serves on the dean’s board of advisers at the Harvard University School of Public Health.
Chan said he is a global real estate investor who puts his money into properties that have the potential to generate a good return, and the Harvard Square buildings fit that strategy. The company through which he is funneling these investments, called Morningside, tends to take a long-term approach, he said, buying properties, holding them, collecting rents, and building equity.
“If interesting opportunities present,” Chan said, “Morningside may consider them.”
But his entry into the Harvard Square commercial estate market initially raised concerns among the neighborhood’s businesses. Some tenants in Chan’s newly acquired buildings, including local landmarks such as UpStairs on the Square and nearby Leo’s Place diner, did not have leases renewed and shut down earlier this year.
“It happened so fast — it was one building, after another, after another,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “They were asking, ‘What’s happening?’ ”
Chan paid $6.8 million for 93 Winthrop St., where he is replacing UpStairs on the Square with another restaurant, Parsnip. His son, Ashley Chan, is listed in corporate documents as one of the managers of the Morningside-controlled entity that operates the restaurant. UpStairs co-owner Mary-Catherine Deibel said, “It was time to wind down the business after 31 years.”
New restaurants — the Noodle Project and Night Market, a Japanese eatery — will replace Leo’s Place, a haunt of movie actor Ben Affleck, and Indian bistro Tamarind Bay, on JFK Street. Ashley Chan is operating these, too. He is a West Coast restaurateur known here for Churn2, a Harvard Square stand that services liquid-nitrogen-chilled ice cream.
Jillson said the Chan family wouldn’t be the first to operate several Harvard Square restaurants. She noted Patrick and Peter Lee’s Grafton Group owns and operates Grafton Street, Russell House Tavern, and Park restaurants.
Chan’s Harvard Square acquisitions were first reported by a real estate publication, Banker & Tradesman. Investing through shell corporations controlled by Morningside, and mostly paying cash, Chan made his first purchase in April 2012, a $16 million deal for Drayton Hall at 48 JFK St. and 115 Mt. Auburn St., both retail and apartment buildings, according to property records. In January 2013, a Chan company paid $32 million for 18-28 JFK St., a 28,000-square-foot apartment and retail complex that includes national tenants such as Pizzeria Uno.
In April 2013, another Chan company paid $33.15 million for 39 JFK St., for years known for the American Express travel office. (American Express gave up the lease, a spokeswoman said.) That same month, Chan moved east, paying $2.95 million for 40 Bow St., a four-story apartment building with retail shops behind the Harvard Lampoon.
In October, a Chan-controlled company triumphed over six bidders for 382-392 Harvard St. and 15 Remington St., a regal Queen Anne at the entrance of the square, buying the properties for $8.4 million — $1.6 million above the asking price, according to Laura Palumbo Hanson, an agent with Hammond Real Estate in Cambridge. In November, Chan acquired Hotel Veritas at 113 Massachusetts Ave. and other properties on Remington Street for $13 million.
Most recently, a Chan company paid $5.9 million in January for 1218 Massachusetts Ave. The building wasn’t for sale, said Daniel H. Wolf, president of Hodan Properties in New London, N.H., but the buyers wanted it and approached him with “a very good price.”
Jillson, the business association leader, said commercial building owners’ and tenants’ worries have abated since Morningside has joined the Harvard Square Business Association, attending monthly meetings and its annual gathering, and staying in touch with other building owners, businesses, and tenants.
“There’s bound to be change,” Jillson said. “We have to look at the whole picture and what is best for the square.”
Not everything is changing. Grendel’s Den, a family-run restaurant and bar in the 93 Winthrop St. building acquired by Chan, has a lease and expects to stay. Grendel’s has operated there since 1971.
“We should be here through 2020, at least,” said co-owner Kari Kuelzer. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Ashley Chan. He is Gerald Chan’s son.