How much pizza is too much pizza? In Cambridge, there’s a government board for that.
Month after month, in public meeting after public meeting, a trendy pizza mini-chain based in Washington, D.C., hacked its way through a thicket of bureaucratic crimson tape in the hopes of opening up shop in a vacant Harvard Square storefront. But when the chain, called &pizza, arrived at the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal in April, the thicket turned into a jungle.
Harvard Square already has plenty of pizza, board chairman Constantine Alexander declared, and though a majority of the board signed off on &pizza’s plans, approval required a four-vote supermajority. Citing the existence of five supposedly similar pizza joints in the area, as well as concerns about traffic congestion, a potential “change in established neighborhood character,” and even the color of the restaurant’s proposed signage, Alexander and cochair Brendan Sullivan dissented.
“A pizza is a pizza is a pizza,” Alexander said at one point during the April hearing, sounding suspiciously like someone who doesn’t eat much pizza or give much thought to the eating habits of the 22,000 or so college students who live in the city.
A city ordinance dictates that any new fast-food place should be approved only if it “fulfills a need for such a service in the neighborhood or in the city.” But the notion that an unelected city board should be conducting market research using some sort of inscrutable eye test to decide precisely what kind of cuisine is appropriate for Harvard Square stretches that to the point of absurdity.
And though &pizza went back to the drawing board in an attempt to resurrect its plans, the space that was once home to the Crimson Corner newsstand and Tory Row restaurant could easily end up as yet another bank branch. Land Court records show the family trust that owns the building — and that sought to lease the space to &pizza for less money than some banks had already offered — is now moving to sell the property, along with another piece of prime Harvard Square real estate.
That means &pizza could well be the last hope of turning the corner into something attractive and fun for the thousands who pour through the area daily.
Unsurprisingly, the ruling has been met with plenty of derisive laughter — it’s not called the Menu Planning Board, after all. Alexander didn’t return calls for this story.
“I think it deserves the laughter that it’s gotten,” said Jacob Anbinder, a Harvard PhD student studying American urban history. “The ‘need’ is basically what the zoning board desires. That, to me, is a willful misinterpretation of what the zoning board is supposed to be.”
The argument that &pizza — which rocketed to prominence on the strengths of both its product and its business practices, paying living wages to employees. and respecting the communities it enters — would somehow change the character of the area is perhaps even stranger. The “counter-culture” chain has more than 20 locations open or coming soon, but this would be its first Massachusetts location.
The front of the vacant store is thick with homeless people. The homeless need places to congregate, too, of course. But if this site is so crucial to the sacred identity of Harvard Square that it can’t possibly be home to a boutique pizza chain, then leaving it indefinitely vacant as a de facto indigent encampment would seem to be an odd choice. What character, exactly, are we hoping to protect?
Municipal boards play important roles, from real planning and zoning decisions to historical and environmental preservation safeguards. But too often they are hyper-responsive to the loudly stated wishes of the relative handful of people who show up to their meetings to complain. Meetings devolve into something approaching satire, where everyone is suddenly an expert in market research, architecture, interior and graphic design, and the sacred history of a place — history as defined by whatever point in time they remember most fondly.
“I miss the old Harvard Square,” Anbinder wrote sarcastically on Twitter, “a series of dirt paths through the woods and marshes inhabited by the Wampanoag.”
Meanwhile, &pizza jumped through every hoop in the hopes of being part of Harvard Square’s future.
‘If [the pizza shop doesn’t] go in there, it’s going to be a financial institution . . . I’m basically stating a principle of business.’Gary Doyle, property trustee
One group wanted them to open earlier, so &pizza added breakfast. People asked for late-night hours, so &pizza agreed to stay open until 2 a.m. Zoning board members worried about delivery traffic, so &pizza agreed not to deliver. People complained that the Crimson Corner newsstand had moved, so &pizza added periodicals. The restaurant changed design elements and scrapped a planned awning, and when people complained about potential take-out traffic, they promised to have their employees police the busy intersection for double-parkers.
“We could not imagine another applicant who has been as responsive to the community,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.
In August, &pizza is returning to the zoning board with a revised plan that more heavily emphasizes a partnership with the fabulous, innovative dessert boutique Milk Bar, as well as some altered signage. If they’re rejected again, or if the building sells before then, bring on the bank branch.
“If they don’t go in there, it’s going to be a financial institution,” Gary Doyle, a member of the trust that owns the building, said at the meeting in April. “I’m not threatening. I’m basically stating a principle of business.”
A bank would be only a marginal improvement over nothing. As high-density urban storefront tenants, bank branches are notoriously useless. They generate very little foot traffic and they close early. Emerge from the Red Line after 5, and the first thing you’d see would be darkened windows.
At least that would be in keeping with the historical character of the area. You know, before electricity and pizza ruined everything.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.