Businesses exiting. Talk of mall-ification. Empty stores. Some fear what’s next for Harvard Square
Last call at John Harvard’s arrived 20 minutes before midnight.
By then, the post-commencement crowd had petered out. The music — a low, thudding bass — faded. On every TV, the Toronto Raptors trounced the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The stalwarts lifted their pints and cried “Last call!” in raucous unison as a barkeep clanged an iron bell.
John Harvard’s Brewery & Alehouse celebrated its last hurrah May 30 before shutting its doors for good, ending a 27-year run on Dunster Street in Harvard Square. It was just the latest in a wave of closings in the square that has some business owners and residents on edge, fearing what it portends for the bustling district.
“I think what’s gotten people’s attention at Harvard Square over the last, say, two to three years has been the number of businesses that have had to leave — particularly in the very central part of the square,” said Cambridge’s vice mayor, Jan Devereux.
Over the past three years, dozens of businesses have exited, including independently owned mainstays like Crema Cafe and Tealuxe, as well as major chains like Chipotle, Starbucks, and CVS.
The World’s Only Curious George Store will depart from the Abbot building for Central Square on June 30. And Harvard University’s renowned American Repertory Theater is leaving for Allston, thanks to a $100 million donation, though no departure date has been set.
The vacancies are hard to ignore. Empty storefronts covered in “Coming Soon” and “Space for Lease” signs dot Massachusetts Avenue and Brattle and Church streets. The vacancy rate for the square’s 321 business property listings has climbed to 11 percent. Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, says 3 to 4 percent is more typical.
Mayor Marc McGovern blames a confluence of factors, including rising rents and a flurry of renovations following eye-popping, multimillion-dollar purchases of real estate by investment firms.
McGovern has no doubt the vacancies will be filled, he said, but he’s worried about the types of businesses that will occupy those spaces — namely, that they will be large national and international chains that can pay top dollar for a spot in the busy square, at the expense of quirky independent stores. For now, he said, property owners continue to sit on empty storefronts until they can get the rents they want.
“What’s going to take the place of those shops?” he asked. “Is it going to be more banks? Is it going to be more cellphone companies?”
“I’m talking about the mallification of Harvard Square,” he continued. “I don’t want it to be an open-air shopping mall, and I think we’re really in danger of that.”
Of course, Cambridge officials have been wringing their hands over that very issue for decades. In 1997, when the beloved Tasty closed after 81 years, it prompted similar soul-searching. Another quirky institution gone, observers warned. Another victim of rising rents replaced by a chain store, bank branch, or fill-in-the-blank franchise. Now other forces are at work, too. Brick-and-mortar stores in even the most vibrant shopping districts are struggling as more people buy online or skip a night out in favor of having Uber Eats deliver dinner.
Still, despite the vacancies, Jillson’s outlook is sunny. She points out that more than 70 percent of the businesses in Harvard Square are locally owned and independent and that a number of businesses are set to occupy the vacant spaces.
The Australian company Bluestone Lane Coffee will replace Crema Cafe. And an announcement concerning the business that will take over the John Harvard’s space is imminent, she added.
Centerplate, the hospitality group that owns John Harvard’s, declined to elaborate on the decision to close the Cambridge outpost. Some independent business owners in the square were more forthcoming about the pressures they face. Others said they were fearful of speaking on the record.
Kim Teirlynck has owned Motto, an artisan jewelry, textile, and accessories store in Harvard Square, for 31 years. She said she was “forced out” of her previous location, 19 Brattle St., after a new owner, Charlotte, N.C.-based Asana Partners, tripled her rent just before Christmas. Asana Partners did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.
She moved her store to 26 Church St. last week. Her new landlord is Harvard University.
“The new owners coming to the square, they don’t care about having any of the independents,” Teirlynck said. “They just want to make it all big-brand mall stores.”
Tess Enright, owner of Tess, a high-end women’s clothing boutique in Harvard Square, credits its survival to customer word-of-mouth and referrals from local business owners. Tess opened on Brattle Street in 1995. Last year, Enright had to move her shop a block north, to 52 Brattle St., while the real estate firm Regency Centers prepared to renovate her former building.
Like many other small-business owners, Enright is uneasy about Harvard Square’s future.
“I do get afraid,” Enright said. “I don’t want to have to think about another move, because I could never leave Harvard Square.”
Harvard Square patrons like Dan Rubin are more ambivalent. As John Harvard’s final night of revelry wore on, the 29-year-old recalled his favorite memory of the basement tavern: besting a player on the Harvard rugby team in a drink-off back when he was an undergraduate at Curry College in Milton.
But beyond his nostalgia, Rubin, who lives in Allston, said he won’t miss much about John Harvard’s. A craft beer enthusiast, he was disappointed when John Harvard’s stopped brewing its own beer on site in 2016. He thought the food was better at Charlie’s Kitchen across the street. He hopes another restaurant-brewery takes John Harvard’s place.
“If you’re not from here, like most Bostonians, you wouldn’t know the difference,” Rubin said about the changes at Harvard Square.
“It’s just a cycle,” he added, shrugging. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary.”