Harvard Square is some of the most valuable real estate in Cambridge.
It is also some of the most boring.
During their Harvard careers, students witness the disturbing disappearance of beloved small businesses and a speedy proliferation of chain restaurants and clothing stores, cell phone retailers and office buildings. In a city known for its funky, offbeat character, the Square bearing Harvard’s name plays host to a selection of businesses more at home in a strip mall.
It’s not all Harvard’s fault. Harvard owns only seven percent of the Square and a scant 1.8 percent — about 295,000 square feet — of Cambridge’s real estate. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Gap and some of the other most obvious chain giants are leased by non-Harvard realtors. Although the university charges steep rents, its rates are nowhere near the top of the market.
Still, critics are incensed at the loss of Harvard Square mainstays like Up Stairs at the Pudding and McIntyre and Moore Booksellers, which have been replaced by office space and other facilities. By failing to support unique businesses, they charge, Harvard is complicit in the square’s decline.
However, some businesses have survived by Harvard’s grace alone. A recent Boston Phoenix article notes that one-of-a-kind stores such as Harvard Book Store, Bartley’s Burger Cottage and Club Passim have retained their current square locations largely because of the generous below-market rents that Harvard charges.
Still, Harvard owns enough land that it can decide what kind of community it wants. While some smaller businesses may not be the University’s largest revenue getters, Harvard University is not like a traditional corporation. As a university, it has an implicit ideological mission — one that recognizes that having a vibrant, diverse community is more important than profit.
Recognizing Harvard’s responsibility to the community means taking an active interest in protecting small businesses, even if that means charging rents well below market rates. Harvard is not the sole actor in the “mall-ification” of the square, but by turning retail outlets into administrative and non-commercial space, Harvard helps to make the Square look more like an office park.
Harvard University needs to put student satisfaction and a vibrant community over profits and do everything possible to protect the few remaining unique businesses in the Square.