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It's not too late

Harvard can help save the Square

Harvard Square is Harvard Square is Harvard Square.

We each -- and no one else -- know its truth. We each -- and no one else -- grasp its intimacies. No two of our histories there are the same. Like all affairs of the heart, our relationships with it change and some of us file for divorce.

People have been moaning that Harvard Square has gone to the dogs since the Russo-Japanese War. Each generation bases its claims on its own set of daguerreotypes. Each romanticizes the past.

That said, a gerbil of modest intelligence could tell you that the square has taken a dive over the past couple of decades. With a few exceptions, there are no heroes in this story. Many dumb, greedy landlords went for the short-term buck over long-term enlightened self-interest. Independents succumbed to an infestation of banks and an Orc-like army of chain stores. Some outlanders like Staples fit. Most, like Pacific Sunwear, did not.

Today, many of the chains have decamped, unable to make their dough, and the little guys can't get back in because the rents are in the stratosphere. Speaking for many, my message to all of the players: A pox on all your houses.

Harvard has been a good landlord to its 35 retail tenants in the square -- about a tenth of the businesses there -- but sat back for years and let unfettered capitalism take its toll. ``We rather like it as a market force-driven commercial area," says Jim Gray, who oversees the university's commercial interests there.

If you listen to everyone now, the scales have fallen from their eyes, and they've already been trudging the road of happy destiny together to a bright and shiny future.

All concede that mistakes were made but said the community has discovered the value of long-term tenants over the quick buck.

Gosh. Are these guys quick studies or what? Better late than never, I suppose, but if past is prologue, I'll believe it when I see it.

We are, by my count, in the third iteration of decline since I started keeping score. The first was marked by the lunatic closure in 1978 of the natural flow of auto traffic moving through the square from Central Square toward Brattle and Mount Auburn streets. This disaster led to the brick area blocking traffic appropriately called ``the pit" that has been teeming with charmless street people for years.

The second iteration was marked by the disappearance like dandelions under a lawn mower of one local icon after another. This is old news, but it bears repeating that Cronin's, Briggs & Briggs, and the Tasty Diner disappeared as Abercrombie & Fitch arrived with the soul of a gnat. Everyone beat their breasts and rent their tunics about the situation and then yawned.

The third iteration is now. I've never seen so much see-through store frontage in the square. Some will be filled, like the 38,000 square feet of blank space from the departures of HMV and Structure alone. Good riddance Sprint . We'll miss you Harnett's. Much of WordsWorth has been empty for over a year, as has the old Citizens Bank storefront on Mass. Ave. It goes on and on. The silver lining in all this, of course, is the chance that vacancies could eventually drive rents down.

I wonder: Can there exist an extra-market force to mitigate this deplorable trajectory? If not, the big boys will always eat the little guys. Welcome to capitalism. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is trying to keep local retailers in Quincy Market, which has been overrun by chains. He may not hold a strong hand, but he has forced the outfit managing the place to postpone booting one local for a national.

Who can fill this role in the square? Harvard, that's who. It needs to raise its profile dramatically. The Harvard Square Business Association may be leading this new focused gemutlichkeit among players, and a small outfit called Cambridge Local First may be pushing shoppers to support home-grown retailers for all the right reasons, but only Harvard has the heft and deep pockets to save the day.

Gray admits the obvious: that in hindsight Harvard might have acted differently. ``In certain areas of the square, if we could turn the clock back, and by virtue of leasing some retail storefronts or buying buildings with prominent storefronts, we probably would do some of that," he says.

This a huge and welcome admission from Harvard, and Gray has already moved in the right direction.

After Sprint left the space in the old Sage's Market on Brattle Street -- shame on the Sage family for taking bucks from Sprint -- Harvard took the empty space to block a chain from moving in and has been paying for it until an appropriate tenant can be found. Landlords need to get that message.

We may or may not be entering a brave new world in the square, but the Observer draws hope from the news that the International House of Pancakes will be coming there soon, filling the void left when the late, great haven for scruffy night owls, the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria, went under decades ago. Think IHOP at 2 a.m. Think instant classic.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com

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