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Harvard modifies plans to renovate Cambridge plaza

When last we left the story of Harvard, the iconic Forbes Plaza in front of Au Bon Pain, and the university’s controversial plans to renovate the beloved public space, Gregory Daugherty, the homeless man who famously sells Spare Change News there, reflected the feelings of many when he asked: “Who’s going to tell Harvard what they can’t do?”

Gregory Daugherty.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

The community, as it turns out.

As followers of the saga know, twice this summer university representatives appeared before the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal, and twice they were sent back to make modifications to address the public’s concerns.

With its famed chess tables, prime people-watching location, and laidback vibe, the plaza has been an important spot for some 30 years. When Harvard proposed changes — as part of a larger renovation of the Brutalist-style Smith Campus Center (née Holyoke Center) — the plaza became a flashpoint in the ongoing fight for the soul of Harvard Square.

The school ran afoul of activists who were unhappy with several issues, among them a proposed glass pavilion that would have significantly intruded on the open-air plaza — even as it added interior public space, and public bathrooms much needed by homeless people and others.


The new plans call for the glass structure to extend just 4 feet from the existing Au Bon Pain glass wall — instead of 11 feet as originally planned.

The second floor will now overhang the first, with seating along the glass wall to “animate the facade,” according to the school’s statement. There are changes to the landscaping as well.

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.

The school expects to present its new plans to the BZA on Thursday. Although a vote has yet to be taken, one of the most vocal critics sounds pleased.


“There are a few details I think still worth exploring with Harvard and their ‘team,’ ” James M. Williamson, a candidate for Cambridge City Council, wrote in an email, “but all-in-all, I am certainly tempted to ‘Declare Victory!’, celebrate our largely very successful collective efforts (Let’s have a Party!), and actually thank Harvard.”

The revised rendering of plans for Forbes Plaza. Harvard University

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.