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The endless skirmish over the soul of Harvard Square is heating up again.
A plan to redevelop three properties on the block where Brattle Street meets John F. Kennedy Street — including the Abbot Building, the flatiron-shaped home to The World’s Only Curious George Store — is roiling locals who worry the once-bohemian business district is marching ever closer to sterility. Turning the trio of century-old buildings into a glitzy indoor mall, they fear, would be the last straw.
“We’re trying to ring the bell quickly before this goes down,” said Susan Corcoran, the owner of Black Ink, a gift shop on Brattle Street. “The businesses that go will never make it back.”
Of course, griping that Harvard Square is “not what it used to be” is a virtual right of residency. More than one generation has lamented the loss of its favorite stores and restaurants.
But the latest fight comes as deep-pocketed investors are dramatically reshaping the area, propelling rents that are among the steepest in Greater Boston even higher.
It started a few years ago, when billionaire Gerald Chan amassed more than $120 million worth of property in the neighborhood, including the shuttered Harvard Square Theater on Church Street. Next was the flare-up over Forbes Plaza last year, when Harvard University said it would renovate the Smith Campus Center and cover a portion of the much-loved space with a glass atrium. That project is underway, with an atrium smaller than the one Harvard originally proposed.
Now comes Equity One, a large New York investment firm whose properties in Massachusetts are relatively low-profile shopping centers built around supermarkets. The publicly traded company spent $85 million to buy the four-story Abbot and two adjacent buildings, with plans to spend tens of millions more converting the warren of low-cost office space on the upper floors into bright, high-ceilinged stores.
“That sort of sent a shock wave through the Square,” said City Council member Jan Devereux, who held a standing-room-only hearing in City Hall on the future of retailing in Harvard Square this month.
Meanwhile, rents have surged. Compiling comprehensive data is tricky, brokers say, because of the wide mix of building types and landlords. But retail space that fetched $50 a square foot five or 10 years ago today goes for three times that, said Richard Diamond, a veteran Cambridge broker. In prime locations, $200 per square foot is not uncommon.
That’s hard for many local retailers to pay, he said.
“They just can’t make enough money to pay those rents,” he said. “This isn’t Manhattan.”
Equity One’s project, which it has dubbed the Collection at Harvard Square, would have to charge at least $200 a square foot to make a profit, Diamond predicted. It would also have some of the largest floor layouts in the neighborhood, as big as 14,000 square feet, according to a marketing brochure.
The plan is tailor-made, Diamond and others note, for big national retailers that can pay top dollar to plant their brand in front of the hordes of students and tourists who stream through Harvard Square. But he worries they will push out the places that make the neighborhood unique, and then may not even survive themselves.
That cycle played out in the 1990s, when the Tasty and the Wursthaus, a diner and German restaurant that held down neighboring storefronts in the heart of the square for decades, were both shuttered within a year, partly the victims of higher rents. The then-trendy clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch moved in, but it lasted just a few years before abandoning its lease. Today it’s a CVS drugstore.
“That’s what I’m worried about,” said City Councilor Leland Cheung. Retailers “want to be in Harvard Square because it’s iconic. That’s great for them, but it’s bad for the community we’re trying to preserve here.”
Still, the perception of a Harvard Square colonized by soulless chains doesn’t quite match reality, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, which says 71 percent of the neighborhood’s 349 businesses are locally owned, with 7 percent being regional chains. That hasn’t changed much in 15 years, she said.
As for nostalgia, Jillson noted, for every member of Generation X who remembers sidling up to the Tasty’s tiny lunch counter for a cheap burger, there’s a millennial today who will remember Felipe’s Taqueria, where students and local workers lined up at lunchtime on Wednesdays for $5 burritos.
“Harvard Square is about an experience and how you relate to it,” Jillson said. “And it has been evolving over 300 years.”
Jillson can tick off a list of businesses that have been there for decades, alongside newcomers that have thrived. The big owners say they see that balance, and want to maintain it. A vibrant Harvard Square, after all, is what they’re paying for.
“We’re very careful about who we bring in,” Paula Turnbull, manager of Chan’s Morningside Group, told the City Council at this month’s hearing. “It has to make sense economically for them.”
Bill Brown, Equity One’s executive vice president of development, said his firm will take the same approach. While rents will almost certainly rise, he said, the building will also be far more efficient, enabling tenants to operate more profitably than they can now. And while the company will pursue national tenants — especially for the bigger spaces — executives are mindful of the local flavor of Harvard Square. There won’t be another CVS, he said, and probably no more banks, either.
“We’re working hard to ensure that the new building is very sensitive to the community and the tenants, as well,” Brown said. “It’s an interesting puzzle, because it’s so small and compact.”
Some Harvard Square mainstays have survived, even thrived, amid the changes.
Raven Books, a seller of used books, moved last year to Church Street after its landlord on JFK Street raised the rent 40 percent. But it took some luck, said owner John Petrovato. He found a church that owned a storefront and was looking for the right kind of tenant. Now, in a brighter, cleaner store, business is up.
“We got lucky,” Petrovato said. “If that place didn’t exist, I don’t know where we’d be.”
Adam Hirsch is hoping for that kind of luck, too.
He opened the World’s Only Curious George Store in 2012, replacing an earlier incarnation that had closed a year prior. His cozy store has a prime spot, in the tip of the Abbot Building. In Equity One’s plans, the space is repurposed as a lobby. The shelves of books about a plucky monkey would be gone.
In this story, there’s really no bad guy, Hirsch said. It’s just economics. He’s hopeful he can find a new store in Harvard Square. And if people worry about the neighborhood losing the stores that make it unique, he said, the best way to help is not to lament, but to shop.
“We’ll welcome all the support we can get,” he said.
This article has been updated to correct the description of the glass atrium Harvard University plans to build at Forbes Plaza.