It’s been this way for years in Harvard Square — every time a business or property changes hands, it sets off debate about what the deal might mean for the neighborhood’s ever-evolving character. So imagine what might happen if a family trust goes ahead with its plans to sell two buildings — with more than a dozen storefronts — along a prime stretch of Brattle Street.
The Dow and Stearns family trust is likely to seek $95 million for two properties that house businesses like the Black Ink gift shop, Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, Felipe’s Taqueria, Origins, and Flat Patties.
The possible sale of the buildings at 1-8 and 17-41A Brattle St. would be the latest multimillion-dollar real estate transaction in Harvard Square, where investors have been scooping up retail properties from longtime owners and raising rents to levels that, in some cases, have led to the ousting of locally run businesses.
“It’s just going to raise rents, as people keep selling these,” said Richard Diamond, principal at the Cambridge commercial real estate firm Diamond Group. “For a while, there was nothing for sale in Harvard Square and all of a sudden it is boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — all sold. The old-timers just wanted the income; now [the new generations] are looking to cash out.”
Two years ago, the Dow and Stearns family trust sold for $85 million three properties on Brattle and John F. Kennedy streets, including the home of The World’s Only Curious George Store. Harvard Square observers speculated that it was only a matter of time before the trust moved to sell its other Brattle Street properties. But the two families couldn’t agree on terms of a sale, and in April the matter ended up in Massachusetts Land Court.
Now the families, who have owned 1-8 Brattle for over a century and the building around the corner at 17-41A Brattle since the 1930s, are working toward putting the properties on the market by Labor Day.
The city does have some say in what happens. Any changes to the buildings — from alterations to demolition — would require approval from the Cambridge Historical Commission, said executive director Charles Sullivan.
The 1-8 Brattle property, which includes two floors of office space, “is pretty much built out; there’s no potential for a bigger building,” he said.
But the single-story 17-41A Brattle building sits on property zoned for up to eight stories. “There is significant development potential over there,” Sullivan said.
And while the commission does its best to preserve buildings when warranted, Sullivan said, it has no authority over which tenants are allowed in.
According to court records, the retail leases at 17-41A Brattle St. range from month-to-month, to several expiring this year, to longer-term agreements.
For instance, the Moleskine stationery shop has a lease until 2025. The 1-8 Brattle St. building also includes the spots vacated by Tory Row restaurant and the Crimson Corner newsstand, which &pizza, a Washington, D.C., chain, wants to occupy.
Richard Getz, who managed the properties for about three decades until about three years ago — when the trust replaced him with the Boston commercial real estate broker Colliers International — said tenants, mostly independent stores, were selected after “very thoughtful planning of what was happening in the Square.” The goal of the family trust at the time was to keep the rents low, with only incremental increases, and to provide short-term leases that would maintain a steady income for all of its beneficiaries, Getz said.
“Everything was pretty well orchestrated,” he said.
But those below-market rents are a thing of the past, especially with demand for Harvard Square retail space showing no signs of cooling, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. She said she hopes the Brattle properties aren’t eventually taken over by chain stores or too many high-end shops.
Harvard Square, she said, is not Newbury Street.
“The family trust has been benevolent and good stewards and understands the value of unique businesses like Black Ink, Cardullo’s, and Brattle Square Florist,” Jillson said. “The next owners, we hope that they will continue to be good stewards and benevolent, but there’s uncertainty as to who it will be and how they will take into consideration and understand the value of these unique stores to the Harvard Square experience.”
The Harvard Square Business Association itself is located across the street at 18 Brattle in a building the Dow and Stearns trust sold in 2015. The trade group is among about two dozen businesses and retailers that will soon be forced out as new owners Regency Centers prepare to launch a major renovation and redevelopment that will make the space look more like an indoor mall.
Between that, the possible new sale, and the upcoming redevelopment of the five-years-vacant Harvard Square Theater on Church Street, there’s going to be massive disruption in the neighborhood for a long time, said Suzanne Blier, an architectural historian and founder of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association. That could hurt businesses by discouraging visitors, she said.
Construction work at the flatiron-shaped Curious George building and connected structures is expected to take more than two years, and there’s concern that the current tenants won’t be able to afford higher post-construction rents.
“When that project begins, Harvard Square is pretty much going to be closed,” Blier said. “I see [it] as part of a very difficult trajectory that’s going to put enormous pressure on the Square and on its residents, and foreshadows the need for us to come together as interested parties and make sure the city and these businesses know that there is a wide variety of other interests in making sure whatever is done is done right.”
City Councilor Marc McGovern said the council needs to work on setting zoning guidelines for Harvard Square to stop the proliferation of low-foot-traffic retail uses such as banks and cellphone stores, which “tend to be the types of places that can afford the rents in Harvard Square.”
“We’re not seeing rents coming down yet,” said McGovern, who is also the city’s vice mayor. “It makes it harder for smaller, more eclectic retailers to remain in the Square and that does change the character of it. But things do change and it’s hard to put a stop sign up and say, ‘Hey, keep everything the same.’ ”Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.