The Cambridge City Council’s Ordinance Committee held a public hearing Wednesday afternoon to discuss the Harvard Square Conservation District Study Committee Report, a document detailing updated guidelines for conservation of the district.
The report is the culmination of a two-year initiative in which the Harvard Square Conservation District Study Committee — headed by Cambridge Historical Commission executive director Charles M. Sullivan — developed “an amended statement of goals and secondary goals and amended guidelines for demolition, construction, and alterations.”
“In our process for reviewing applications in conservation districts, the commission is directed to review those applications in the context of the goals for the individual district,” Sullivan said at the hearing. “The study committee focused on refining those goals to provide better guidance for the Historic Commission as it administers the conservation district and better guidance to provide clearer expectations for applicants and residents of the district.”
The Cambridge Historical Commission defines neighborhood conservation districts as areas consisting of buildings that are “architecturally and historically distinctive.” The commission aims to protect these neighborhoods, which includes Harvard Square, by holding public hearings on applications for “signs and alterations; demolition and new construction; and additions.”
Sullivan said Harvard Square’s unique position as a commercial neighborhood demanded special consideration.
“Harvard Square, of course, is not like Mid-Cambridge, or Avon Hill, or any other conservation district — it's a commercial neighborhood,” he said. “Maintaining the commercial vitality of the district is a very strong and important primary goal.”
Among its amendments, the report offers new language supporting goals related to commercial urban experiences, residential development, transportation and pedestrian safety, and energy conservation. It also outlines a new goal for regulating architectural lighting.
Additionally, the report proposes adjusting the division of the Harvard Square Overlay District from six sub-districts into seven to better reflect the sub-districts’ evolving characters.
Sullivan said one of the committee’s accomplishments was fostering cooperation between different stakeholders who had been in disagreement for decades.
“The situation in Harvard Square was such that there were people who had been at loggerheads for decades, literally decades,” Sullivan said in an interview after the event. “If the timing is right and if you're patient, there is always a possibility that you can take intractable opposing opinions and form a consensus.”
Sullivan attributed some of the committee’s success in reaching consensus to the structure of the meetings and the committee’s methods.
He said the committee made sure to invite all applicants — including those who had not been offered a spot on the committee — as well as representatives from the University and other relevant stakeholders to participate in the discussions on an “equal basis” with the appointed members.
“They all came to all of these many, many meetings, and everybody sat around the table and faced each other,” he said. “Everybody had a placard — nobody was identified as being an appointed member or not.”
There was also no set time for the meetings, only structured agendas, and the discussions were allowed to go on freely “for as long as people wanted to talk,” he added.
Several council members praised the report and the committee’s leadership during the hearing.
“I thought this was the best process I've ever seen in Cambridge, and it's not that people came — as you alluded to, Mr. Sullivan — came with the same opinion on many issues. But you helped reach that consensus,” said Councilor Dennis J. Carlone, chair of the Ordinance Committee.
“This is a process that we can and should use as a model to understand how it is that we can, in a potentially contentious situation, bring folks together,” Councilor Patricia M. Nolan added.
The Ordinance Committee unanimously moved forward with a favorable recommendation on the presentation and the report to the full City Council.
—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.