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Harvard’s glass pavilion plan for plaza meets resistance

Fans of Forbes Plaza’s footloose style balk at project

Gregory Daugherty — a homeless man also known as the Spare Change Guy of Harvard Square — has been working the same stretch of sidewalk for so long that when Matt Damon and Minnie Driver filmed a scene at the plaza in front of Au Bon Pain for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” there he was in the background, energetically greeting the public just as he does today.

But Daugherty’s outdoor office alongside the plaza on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Dunster Street may be getting a makeover, courtesy of property owner Harvard University, and not everyone is happy about it.


Harvard wants to build a glass pavilion that would simultaneously encroach on the spot formally known as Forbes Plaza and add indoor space that would be open to the public, including areas on the second floor, offering views toward Harvard Yard and ambience from a couple of fireplaces.

Critics say the glass enclosure would intrude on the freewheeling culture of one of the square’s best-known public spaces, a gathering spot for professors and students, protesters and tourists, chess players and street performers, and homeless people who may not feel comfortable going inside.

Depending on who’s telling the story, the school is either a civic-minded neighbor interested in enhancing public space and adding much-needed restrooms, or a villain intent on turning Cambridge into a “Harvard theme park,” in the words of Harvey Silverglate, a well-known attorney and Harvard Law School graduate.

Gregory Daugherty, known as the Spare Change Guy of Harvard Square, opposes the idea of transforming the area around Mass. Ave. and Dunster Street, but asked, “Who’s going to tell Harvard what they can’t do?”Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

On a recent afternoon, Daugherty took a break from addressing the public — “Hello there, young man!” he called to one not particularly young or interested pedestrian — to say he doesn’t want to see the plaza transformed. “But,” he added, “who’s going to tell Harvard what they can’t do?”

That question is unresolved. The university is seeking the last of the needed approvals from the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal.


The planned plaza renovation is part of a larger project that involves renovating the first, second and 10th floors of the Smith Campus Center (née Holyoke Center), a Brutalist-style, 1960s-era building that houses Harvard’s information center, the university health service, and administrative offices.

Minnie Driver and Matt Damon appeared in a scene from the 1997 movie “Good Will Hunting” that was filmed in the plaza.George Kraychyk/Miramax/AP

The appeal board has held two hearings this summer on the proposed renovation, and critics showed up to raise objections at both meetings. At the most recent, on July 30, the board voted to continue the hearing, putting the onus on Harvard to address the public’s concerns before seeking approval again.

No date has been set for a new hearing.

At its most basic, the fight centers on matters of square footage, and whether the public really would feel welcome in public space inside glass walls.

Harvard has said the glass structure would reduce the outdoor portion of the plaza by 1,650 square feet, a number questioned by some activists, while increasing interior public space by 6,461 square feet. Anyone would be allowed to enter that area, no Harvard ID required.

The university has already received a favorable recommendation from the city’s Planning Board and the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, and a certificate of appropriateness from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Charles Sullivan, the historical commission’s director, said his agency felt the loss of open space would be balanced by enhanced indoor facilities.

But opponents said that Harvard’s glossy proposed changes are more in keeping with the new Harvard Square than the square of the past, an intellectual and edgy place with offbeat characters part of the mix.


Andrey Froim and Gregg Berman played chess at one of the tables slated for removal.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Sullivan, who moved to Cambridge in 1965, recalled that earlier time. “It’s no accident that Joan Baez and the folk-music movement got started in Harvard Square,” he said. “It used to be said that the only place you could buy a croissant this side of Martinique was the Patisserie Française on JFK Street. Now you can buy a croissant in the supermarket, but then it was a symbol of something cosmopolitan.”

On a recent afternoon, Forbes Plaza was alive with tourists following guides holding up umbrellas, slumped folks down on their luck, Verizon workers on break, and chess player Chris Williams, sitting behind a scrawled sign: “Play the chess master. $5 to the winner.”

Williams wasn’t sitting at one of the famed built-in chess tables — he had set up his own board — but he had strong feelings about Harvard’s plans to remove the existing five tables and build five new ones outside and five inside.

“These tables should be considered like the ducks in the Public Garden,” he said. “They’re like monuments.”

Even as critics fight the potential loss of outdoor space, a Harvard urban-planning scholar who has studied public-private spaces — and said he has been approached by both Harvard and its critics — said that if done right, indoor public space can truly become a gathering spot.

“Even if the public and the property owner have different goals and needs, thoughtful design and stewardship can accommodate both,” said Jerold Kayden, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and author of “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.”


“I know it sounds bland,” he added, “but it’s true.”

He points to a Manhattan building, 590 Madison Avenue, where the developer built a glass-enclosed, tree-filled, covered pedestrian space that is so popular it has turned into the city’s “living room.”

For traditionalists of a certain viewpoint, the gripe about today’s Harvard Square is that it’s become a generic outdoor mall, filled with chain stores and banks.

But Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association and a supporter of Harvard’s plans, said that most stores in the square are independent.

Going back 10 years, she said, about 74 percent of the square’s approximately 360 businesses are locally and independently owned, a number that’s remained fairly steady. About 8percent are international chains; 6.5 percent are regional chains, like J.P. Licks or Boloco; and the rest are national chains.

“It’s all about personal experience,” she said. “If you talk to people who graduated in the 1980s and you say what was your favorite place, they might say the Tasty, and the Tasty is not here anymore, so they lament that fact that Harvard Square has changed. If you speak to someone who graduated in the ’90s, they might say Tower Records, and now that is gone.”

A glass pavilion at the Smith Campus Center would create 6,461 square feet of indoor space open to the general public.HOPKINS ARCHITECTS PARTNERSHIP LLP

One chain, Au Bon Pain, has long had a restaurant at the plaza. Harvard said it has been in touch with the tenants, but would not comment on individual leases.


The surrounding Forbes Plaza started life as an unloved barren plaza, with the tables and seating coming later, in the mid-1980s.

Now, some 30 years hence, it has come to feel like old Harvard Square, and that’s what opponents are fighting for.

Said Pebble Gifford, a longtime activist and a cofounder of the now-defunct Harvard Square Defense Fund: “I’ve come out retirement to fight this.”

The whole block, outlined and seen here on July 16, 1957, that was razed to make way for what is now formally known as Forbes Plaza. Paul Maguire/Globe Staff/ file/Globe Staff

Beth Teitell can be reached at Beth.Teitell@Globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.