Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 11, 2013

Completing the Square

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,planning — Tags: , — Robert Winters @ 2:49 pm

Central Square in Cambridge has once again become a focal point for planners, activists, property owners, developers, elected officials, and residents. There is much that can be said, but the primary point of this picture book is to emphasize the opportunities that exist in what may be a narrow window in time to "Complete the Square" in a manner that should satisfy most people. Here are a few images (mostly taken on Monday, June 10, 2013) to help tell this story.

It’s important to understand that Central Square today is just an echo of the days when it was a prime shopping district for the residents of Cambridge and elsewhere. There are proposals today that would encourage a more diverse mix of retail and bring more residents close to the Square. This may require some creative changes in the zoning laws to bring about these positive changes. There’s plenty of room for debate on location, height and density but there are good opportunities now to make some great changes for the better. – RW

Central Square
This was once the site of the Cambridge Athenaeum
which also served for a time as City Hall
Central Square
There seems to be something missing next to the
beautiful facade of the Barron Building.
Cambridge Athenaeum
Central Square
This site at Pearl Street could be so much more vital than it is today.
Central Square
Another strip of "taxpayers" – one story structures that occupy space formerly occupied by far more appropriate structures.
Central Square
The rhythm of Mass. Ave. benefits from a mixture of taller
and shorter structures, especially when the sides of the taller
buildings have something to offer visually.
Central Square
This is one of the most deficient parts of the Central Square streetscape – a site where new retail and residential uses would be a great benefit. Today the most prominent feature is the graffiti next door.
Central Square
Central Square could be so much better than prominent displays of vandalism. There should be great buildings all the way to Norfolk St.
Central Square
The site of the Middle East Restaurant today occupies what was a
building with several stories. It could use some upstairs space.
Central Square
Many of us remember this block when you could rent tools in one location, watch a movie in another, buy clothes at another, and enjoy some great Chinese food.
Central Square
This block is improving, but we could still do better.
Central Square
One of the blocks that seems to be missing a lot. The Central
Square Cinema and other storefronts once occupied this space.
Central Square
Lafayette Square now hosts Jill Brown-Rhone Park. This end of the Square can only improve with more residents in proximity.
Central Square
Standing like a lone soldier in what should be a series of great buildings.
Central Square
Miracle of Science at the eastern edge of the Square
Central Square
The park is beautiful and tries to draw attention from the
scene’s most prominent feature – a blank pink wall.
Central Square
This may be the most incomplete corner in all of Central Square.
The decaying billboard on the roof guards the deficit.
Central Square
The U-Haul is convenient for those who are moving, but this stretch of Main Street would be so much better with residential uses.
Central Square
One of the many Quest sites recently sold which may soon
potentially enhance this area.
Central Square
Another missing tooth. The outline of a former building is apparent on the blank brick wall.
Central Square
Ideally, the future Central Square would still retain some of its industrial past, but maybe people could live next door to the chocolate factory.
Central Square
The view from Main Street across Lafayette Square
Central Square
The view toward the hotel at University Park. Ideally, Central Square should have more of a rhythm of heights and density.
Central Square
Architecturally Lacking – #1
Central Square
Architecturally Lacking – #2
Central Square
This end of Columbia St. would be so much better with more activity.
Central Square
A great Central Square building

  Central Square
Central Square Hardware and Tool Rental was once here until a
spectacular fire destroyed the building. It’s now a parking lot.

A view of what this block once looked like is shown at right.

 Central Square
Central Square
Another great Central Square building
Central Square
The Odd Fellows Hall (now the Dance Complex) seems to be missing a neighbor.
Central Square
Vacancies where there was once a very active street
Central Square
Though this site at Pearl Street is just feet from public transit and should support more height, the existing building seems to be in good shape.
Central Square
The site of the former Manhattan Market has cycled through multiple commercial tenants in recent years.
Central Square
The old signage on the side of the Barron Building
Central Square
This block could stand to have a lot more character.
Central Square
The Barron Building – another great Central Square building
Central Square
Here’s an example of a good-looking tall building in Central Square.
Central Square
Most of us agree that we don’t want this kind of tall building again.
Central Square
The often-criticized Holmes Building was supposed to have cafes and other amenities on the ground floor. Instead we got banks and phone stores.
Central Square
With the old pool removed, we get a brief look at the YWCA prior
to new housing construction on Temple Street.
Central Square
Looking across the Temple Street lot toward City Hall
Central Square
The ultimate eyesore – Vail Court still vacant after decades
Central Square
Lost opportunity – Vail Court still vacant on Bishop Allen Drive
Central Square
View from the balcony of the new Alice K. Wolf Center
Central Square
View of the Holmes Building from the Alice K. Wolf Center
Central Square
View of City Hall from the Alice K. Wolf Center
Central Square

Central Square Central Square Central Square
Central Square Central Square Central Square


  1. thanks for putting this together.

    Comment by Greg Heidelberger — June 11, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

  2. Great job Robert – good pictures tell the story much better than words!

    Comment by HUGH RUSSELL — June 11, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

  3. This is a wonderful presentation. It just bakes my bread thinking about the apathy, stagnation, lack of courage, and vision that has stifled this area. The property owners viewing this should feel a pinch of shame.

    I do not understand why Vail Court is allowed to languish and operate as an illegal commercial parking lot. Its proximity to city hall is especially embarrassing. The property at 401 Mass Ave is also on my list. I contact the owner every 6-8 months practically begging him to let it go.

    I’m a huge advocate of property rights, but the city really needs to get some courage and step in where owners aren’t fulfilling their obligations to the community.

    The vacancy at the Holmes building is another one that just boils the blood.

    My own property in Central could use some love as well, fortunately that work is already under way. Again, great work Dr. Winters.

    Comment by Patrick Barret — June 11, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

  4. Robert,

    The pictures do tell a great story.

    I hope that people can come together over the upcoming months and work towards a future for Central Square that incorporates the glories of its past and present with a promise for a bigger and even better future.

    The photos of Vail Court are particularly galling as they represent an opportunity for additional housing in a City in which most would agree housing is needed. 24 units sitting vacant on over half an acre of land is more than an eyesore, it is borderline criminal.

    I recognize that the City does not undertake eminent domain takings (I agree) but there must be other approaches that could be used to either encourage the current Washington state owners to do something better with this property or sell it? I am certain that there is no shortage of good landowners and developers that would love to undertake a project to rehab those units and restore them to a condition where they can provide valuable housing.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — June 12, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  5. No pressure from taxes, no pressure from cowardly council, no mortgages, and no commitment to the community = no reason to develop or maintain.

    Comment by patrick barrett — June 13, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  6. What’s in that ugly tall building anyway?
    40 years in Cambridge and I never thought to
    Well, I know what’s on the ground floor.
    Who are some of its higher-up tenants?

    -Fred Baker

    Comment by Fred Baker — June 13, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  7. Patrick,

    I agree that there is no pressure for them to do anything right now, but there are tools should the City so decide to employ them.

    I have heard some good things about the AG’s Abandonned Properties program and it is hard to argue that these properties are not abandonned.

    Heck, there could even be a role for the Redevelopment Authority in either encouraging or forcing the owners to sell to a buyer who would do something special with the site.

    It’s just a shame that we are having so many discussions about housing and this great opportunity is sitting right there doing nothing.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — June 13, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  8. I wonder if the city council is aware of the program. I think the threat of receivership or these so called “super-liens” could be an very effective means of getting owners off their duffs. I can think of at least two properties that fit the criterion in Central Square alone.

    Comment by patrickbarrett — June 13, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

  9. Good question on knowledge of the program. This property would be an good one on which the City and Council could apply the program. I look at the property and see the potential for a good mix of units and income levels.

    Comment by Charlie Marquardt — June 14, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  10. My intention in posting this photographic walk-through of Central Square was simply to highlight the many ways in which Central Square could benefit from some constructive improvements. This is important to stress during this municipal election year when some people are clearly organizing to block all but the most superficial changes from happening. Many of us are BIG fans of Central Square, but that doesn’t mean it should be static or that we should be satisfied with the more degraded aspects of the Square.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 14, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

  11. The property has been the subject of two (now lapsed) planning board hearings wherein the owner was given the ability to build 25 units. Now it has been included in the C2 zoning map which may provide for additional units or a transfer of development rights. I hate the idea of awarding owners like this with anything positive, but if it gets them off their rears I suppose its worth it.

    Senor Winters,

    What you’ve done is visually catalog areas we’ve all looked at sometime or another and said to ourselves, “why?” I thank yee for it. I love Central Square, but I don’t love it because of the degraded underused properties, or the so called “grittiness.” I just think we aught to be finding ways to improve the good, mitigate the bad, and find a way to share it with more people.

    Comment by Patrick Barret — June 14, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  12. Patrick – I’m with you 100 percent. Words like “grittiness” and “funkiness” are often used solely for the purpose of resisting change. I want most of the affordable retail to remain even if some of it relocates to side streets. Some people see change in Central Square as a choice between the unchallenged comfort of what exists today versus high-end boutiques where ordinary people won’t go. I have total confidence that there’s opportunity for all. Central Square is also a fairly large area and I could definitely see it evolving such that different parts of the Square appeal to different people. This is already the case in some ways.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 14, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  13. Thanks for posting these pictures. I really miss the existence of Woolworths, Corcorans, and Central Surplus. Between those and Pill Hardware which fortunately still exists I could buy anything I needed; clothing, dishes, tools, fabrics, bedding, other housewares, miscellaneous stuff (e.g. canaries or goldfish), etc.

    Mixed use is what we need. A wide range of retail on the ground floor – housing and offices above them. Lots of reasons for people to be out on the street. See Jane Jacobs: The Live and Death of Cities.

    In January I was in Myanmar (formerly Burma). While in Yangon, the largest city, I stayed in a nice hotel. 2 blocks away was a large high school – I walked by it when I got out; there were 100s of kids (some of whom got to practice their English with me) getting into truck busses to go home. Two blocks in the other direction were a series of shops – one had plumbing supplies, the next had electrical supplies, the next had shoes, then other clothes, and so on. These were in 3-6 story buildings; above the shops you could see laundry hangout out the windows so clearly these buildings were residential. The streets were bustling with people each time I went out. A few blocks away was the Schwedagon Pagoda – a site filled with Stupas, a monastery, and many other structures (looked a bit like being in DisneyLand). Also a huge market selling just about anything (food, clothing, pets, plants, furniture, …) was in walking distance.

    I could live there; I wish Central Square was a bit more like Yangon.

    Comment by John Gintell — June 16, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  14. Replace 3-6 stories with 8-12 and laundry hanging out the window with in unit or a laundry facility in the basement and I’m sold.

    Comment by patrick barrett — June 17, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  15. My ideal Central Square would have most of the “missing teeth” on Mass. Ave. and Main St. filled with great-looking buildings of a scale similar to some of the classic old buildings that are there now (Odd Fellows Hall, for example). In addition, there could be a couple of new mixed-use buildings of greater heights to create a rhythm of different scales along Mass. Ave. The most appropriate locations for such higher-scale buildings would be at Norfolk St. and in Lafayette Square. I also think it is very appropriate to use some of the municipal parking lots to leverage best outcomes.

    What annoys me greatly is the propaganda being pushed by reactionary groups like the “Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods” (which represents no neighborhoods) and the “Cambridge Residents Alliance” (which represent only themselves). For example, here’s a snippet from the latest ACN fundraising letter to support their propaganda machine: “Zoning changes under the Council’s consideration will authorize buildings of up to 16 stories to line either side of Massachusetts Avenue east of Central Square.

    I don’t know of a single rational person who has actually followed the Central Square proceedings over the last few years who believes this tripe.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 17, 2013 @ 10:23 am

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