Harvard Square Theater would be replaced with new building, cinema
The former Harvard Square Theater, a cornerstone of Cambridge’s signature neighborhood for decades before its closure in 2012, would be demolished and replaced with a five-story office and retail complex under a new plan floated Wednesday by owner Gerald Chan.
And in a significant concession to neighbors, Chan plans to include a new, two-screen cinema in the below-ground level of his 50,000-square-foot development on Church Street. The theater business would probably be managed by Richard Fraiman, the owner of independent theaters in Arlington and Somerville’s Davis Square.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to create a building of contemporary urban design in Harvard Square,” a spokeswoman for Chan said in a statement. “We’ve heard the community concerns about reactivating Church Street and are responding with a plan that we think will help to increase activity.”
The project needs several city approvals before Chan can break ground. His spokeswoman declined to provide an approximate completion date, saying the process is just beginning.
A wealthy investor and philanthropist who’s been called an “invisible billionaire” for his modest lifestyle and low profile, Chan bought the former theater building in 2015 for $17.5 million, part of a buying spree that has seen him become the largest landowner in Harvard Square after Harvard University itself.
Earlier this year, he came under intense pressure from the city of Cambridge to speed up redevelopment of the vacant theater, which one official called an “eyesore.” Angry city councilors complained the dormant property was an anvil around the neck of Harvard Square, and in particular Church Street, which has become desolate at night without theater patrons milling around. Councilor Marc McGovern even threatened to have the building seized by eminent domain, as Cambridge did in 2016 to several long-vacant residential properties near Central Square that were owned by a squabbling family.
After being briefed on the new plan Wednesday morning, though, McGovern and other local leaders enthusiastically praised Chan for responding to their criticism.
“They hit it out of the park,” McGovern said, a phrase echoed by other councilors. “The theater is coming back, the retail is going to liven up the street, and it’s a really spectacular-looking building that’s a piece of art itself.”
“Normally, in these situations, it’s easy to find a couple things to complain about,” he added, “but honestly, I’m having a hard time finding one here.”
Renderings of the proposed building, which was designed by Portuguese firm Promontorio in collaboration with Elizabeth Whittaker of Boston-based Merge Architects, show a distinctive facade with tall strips of glass interspersed with textured panels. A long notch in its center is designed to let natural light enter a courtyard in the middle of the building.
The ground floor would contain several retail shops, with offices above. No new parking spaces would be constructed.
To advance his project, Chan will need city approval to build slightly higher — 68 feet — than the 60 feet currently allowed. He will also need permission from the Cambridge Historic Commission to demolish the existing theater, built in 1926.
City Councilor Leland Cheung suggested officials were eager for work to begin and would probably approve both requests. The existing theater building is not of any particular architectural significance, he argued, and the council’s recent animosity toward Chan’s development team had essentially evaporated with the unveiling of the new plans.
“The council’s been throwing a lot of heat at them . . . but they responded very well,” Cheung said. “As for the current building, it’s just a big brick wall. It isn’t a whole lot to look at.”
Chan’s development company called the existing structure “functionally obsolete.”
Nearby businesses also cheered the proposed complex, which promises to lure more potential customers. Denise Jillson, the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said the closure of the theater had substantially reduced pedestrian traffic on Church Street, in turn driving down sales at nearby shops like Lizzy’s Homemade Ice Cream, which was forced to close during winter.
“People talk about needing to preserve our unique brick-and-mortars in Harvard Square, but to keep that vibrancy and economic engine running, we need foot traffic,” she said. “The adverse economic impact of that theater being closed for years cannot be underestimated.”
The proposal’s unveiling comes amid a period of change in the neighborhood that has reignited longstanding anxiety over its character. Several key properties, including the Abbot Building that houses the World’s Only Curious George Store, are up for redevelopment, while several longtime retailers have closed or relocated.
Some critics worry corporate blandness is eroding the eclectic feel that made Harvard Square so iconic, and have mobilized against other projects. But such objections did not surface Wednesday.
Suzanne Blier, a neighborhood activist and Harvard professor, said she had prepared for an ugly fight over the theater property after Chan hinted earlier he might build science labs there. Instead, she walked out of Chan’s presentation on Wednesday gushing about the proposal, particularly the inclusion of a theater.
“I’d given up expecting much,” Blier said. “But the plan is stunning. Stunning. What a great solution to a complex architectural problem — it’s at once classical and creative.”
McGovern said the return of a movie theater to Harvard Square would also be important culturally. The previous theater was the scene of first dates for generations, he said, plus unique traditions such as a weekly acting-out of ”The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“It was a central part of growing up here,” McGovern recalled. When the new theater opens, he joked, “I might have to break out the leather jacket and combat boots and spike up the hair again. It’s been a while.”