Harvard Square unchained [Boston Herald]By Donna Goodison, Boston HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 18--It's a lament heard year after year after year: What happened to the eclectic Harvard Square of old and how did it come to resemble a suburban shopping mall?
But repeated surveys of the Cambridge shopping district refute the view that it's turned into just another homogenous center for national and international retailers, at the expense of independently owned local shops, according to the Harvard Square Business Association.
And a 2 percent vacancy rate bears out that the neighborhood -- which gets 8 million visitors annually -- remains a popular destination, according to executive director Denise Jillson.
Of the 361 businesses in the 44-acre Harvard Square district, 10 percent are national chains and 6 percent are international, according to a June survey. The majority of businesses -- 77.8 percent -- are locally owned, a number that's gone up or down only by about 2 percentages points since 2002, Jillson said. Just more than 5 percent are regional to metro-Boston or New England.
"There's this notion that somehow Harvard Square was overrun with banks and with national chains, and the reason for that is they have very large and very prominent spaces," Jillson said. "But the reality is there are dozens and dozens of small, unique independent stores, and many of them have been there a very long time."
Richard Diamond, a Cambridge commercial real estate broker in business since the early '80s, said Harvard Square has had chains dating back to Woolworth's.
"It has changed with different stores coming and going, but there are still some small and interesting stores like the Curious George Store -- it's the only one in the world," Diamond said. "The chains are the big stores, and they stand out, but people tend not to look at all the little stores that we have that are unusual and unique."
One of the prime bank locations at the heart of the square will soon be vacant when Citizens moves from its 6 JFK St. spot of eight years.
The bank, which opened in the two-story space after the Abercrombie & Fitch chain moved out, signed a lease last week to relocate to the former Wordsworth spot. The Brattle Street space has been without a permanent tenant since 2004, in part due to handicap-access issues, according to Richard Getz, a Cambridge commercial property manager.
"There's not too many spaces left in Harvard Square to rent," Getz said. "Maybe this is a precursor to what we can look forward to in the economy."
Harvard Square is an "authentic urban place where people want to be," and it's always evolved, according to John DiGiovanni of Trinity Property Management, whose properties include the Garage retail building.
"I don't think national is bad, and I don't think regional is bad," said DiGiovanni, who's also president of the business association. "The best urban districts ... have a mix of all of that. The national stores are obviously doing something right because you don't grow in that way otherwise."
And it's the small unusual stores -- local, mom-and-pop stores with three locations -- looking for space in the square, he said.
"The chains realize that they don't make it as well," Diamond said. "Look at what happened with Abercrombie. They came in, and they were gone. PacSun was here, and they were gone."
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