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Zoning Out

A new proposal to limit the size of businesses in Cambridge will likely increase gentrification and adversely affect students

On Jan. 24, the Cambridge Ordinance Committee met to discuss a proposal that would limit the size of businesses permitted in Harvard Square. The petition would amend zoning regulations such that all floor area above 60 feet in height would be mandated residential space. Additionally, the petition would require buildings of 60 linear feet or more to devote half of their frontage to “small store space,” defined as space that is under 1,250 rentable feet.

At the meeting, petitioners led by Cambridge resident Peter B. Kroon expressed concern over the treatment of small businesses in the Square. In the past, residents have criticized the Cambridge Historical Commission for not being adequately concerned with gentrification and rising property values, which have forced some businesses to close or move.

However, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association Denise A. Jillson argued strongly against the petition. We agree with Jillson’s statement that “this petition does nothing to increase foot traffic and that it hinders sustainable leasing opportunities, diminishes flexibility, restricts growth, and hyperregulates marketing efforts.” Furthermore, we find the specific limits on square feet to be void of real significance beyond simply limiting business size.

We agree that this proposal will prevent business from adequately adjusting to increasing demand from tourists, students, and residents in Harvard Square. While zoning regulations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and while studies have pointed out flaws in recent academic research on the matter, much of the evidence suggests that overburdensome zoning regulations raise property prices, exacerbating gentrification.

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Given the fact that Harvard Square is already showing signs of gentrification—property values have nearly doubled in the last five years and new landowners have bought significant portions of the area—the Kroon petition risks further exposing the Square to its negative effects. As a result, we urge the Cambridge Ordinance Committee to exercise caution in choosing whether to adopt this measure.

Furthermore, these regulations will make Harvard Square even more inhospitable for one type of business that students and residents alike acknowledge is desperately needed: a grocery store. While the Square is replete with restaurants, students seeking to purchase raw ingredients or fresh produce in lieu of journeying to their dining halls come up short. By limiting the square footage of businesses in the Square, this ordinance might reinforce the status of the Square as a food desert.

Of course, zoning regulations can be beneficial, particularly in maintaining historical areas such as Harvard Square. Nevertheless, we worry this particular ordinance would do little to encourage, as the Harvard Square Business Association said, “good value and good quality,” and instead harm those living in the area.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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