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Reviving a Traditional City

Central Square, Cambridge, gets a facelift

Rekha Murthy 11.301J - Introduction to Urban Design and Planning Dennis Frenchman Massachusetts Institute of Technology December 9, 2004

By the early 1990s, Cambridge's Central Square area needed a makeover. It was just beginning to emerge from decades of economic stagnation, and it was not yet a hospitable place for visitors nor for many residents. City officials, business leaders, and residents had been working for years to turn things around, creating commissions, conducting studies, and holding public workshops to consider how to boost the foundering urban ecology by identifying and addressing the needs of its different domains. The "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan", completed in 1995, was one result of these efforts. In it, the plan's authors show how both urban layout and urban detailing could be used to accomplish their revitalization goals. Planners understood that external appearance matters, and that, among other things, Central Square needed a better image in order to attract new businesses into its vacant properties and customers into its businesses. They also recognized that the area stood a better chance of thriving if its public spaces were more inviting and pedestrian-friendly. The plan is an ambitious reconciliation of a constellation of uses and visions for the public spaces of this urban area. Woven throughout the document is language that values aesthetically pleasing appearance, better quality of life, and the organic form of a traditional city as essential to sustainable urban improvement. The 1995 plan followed several attempts by Cambridge officials and Central Square business owners to improve the area. During the 1980s, the city launched a Facade Improvement Program for local businesses, conducted studies of Central Square and the surrounding neighborhoods, and received grant money for a variety of enhancement projects. In 1988, the city created the Central Square Overlay

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District, which modified existing zoning rules and provided for "more careful public scrutiny of development proposals that may alter the established urban form of the Central Square area," a form prized for its "diversity of development and open space patterns and building scales and ages."1 That form had developed over centuries in what is now called a Traditional City model of urban layout, one with small lot sizes and low buildings. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Central Square developed organically along Massachusetts Avenue as a crossroads between Old Cambridge (now Harvard Square) and Boston. While certain buildings have come and gone, the essential layout with its primarily commercial function has remained (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Central Square Overlay District

The desire to preserve this traditional city form strongly influenced planning projects throughout the 1990s. In the early part of the decade, the City of


City of Cambridge. Zoning Ordinance, Article 20.00 "Zoning Overlay Districts". 20.302 "General Purpose." 2 12/9/2004

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Cambridge, under Mayor Kenneth Reeves, held workshops to get residents, business leaders, and officials from academic and city institutions to contribute to a vision for a revitalized Central Square. Workshops covered many domains, notably transportation, housing, environmental factors, and economic development and employment. One of the key documents to emerge from this time was the 1993 "Toward A Sustainable Future: Cambridge Growth Policy Document":

The vision embodied in this document is conserving, respecting the past, while not suggesting that land uses in Cambridge remain frozen or static. It recognizes that some growth and change can be beneficial to the city. It builds on the recognition that Cambridge works and human diversity works. The current mix of urban form, scale, density and mix of uses is worth sustaining and enhancing, both in existing neighborhoods and commercial districts, and in the older industrial areas.2

The vision laid out in this nearly 200-page document is not a plan itself; rather, it was intended to serve as a reference for future plans. Some of those involved in the 1995 Central Square plan did in fact turn to it. "Toward a Sustainable Future" characterized urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and 1960s that promoted high-rise buildings and automobile-centric development as misguided things of the past.3 Passages like the one below are foundational to good plan-making, with sustainable development as a "guiding concept:"

Sustainable development means viable growth measured by good jobs and increased community wealth, not just redistribution of resources. In addition, the goal is better quality of life for all citizens, measured by investments in cultural and other public services, in children, the elderly, and all segments of the community. The environment should be improved through better air and water quality and enhanced recreational and cultural opportunities. In sum, investments should be made that improve both the economy and the quality of life for the community.4


Cambridge Planning Board and Community Development Department. "Toward a Sustainable Future: Cambridge Growth Policy Document." final draft, February 23, 1993, p. vii. 3 "Toward a Sustainable Future: Cambridge Growth Policy Document," pp. 15-16. 4 "Toward a Sustainable Future: Cambridge Growth Policy Document," p. 31. Rekha Murthy 3 12/9/2004

Revitalization work was being done elsewhere in Cambridge -- in Harvard Square, for example. But the nicer Harvard Square became, the more Central Square stayed the same, as one Central Square commercial property owner put it.5 The Central Square of the late 1980s and early 1990s was an automobile-centric commercial strip centered on Massachusetts Avenue, between Lafayette Square and City Hall (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Massachusetts Avenue at Prospect Street, 1989

The retail mix skewed toward the low-income population, with 99-cent stores on both sides of Massachusetts Avenue.6 Major property owners on the strip presided over high commercial vacancy rates for a variety of reasons: Some didn't want to commit to tenant leases at the bottom of the market, others had paid off their mortgages and were busy with other projects, and still others didn't want to pay for expensive renovations to their old buildings until they could secure a high-paying

5 6

Miller, Amy. "Who Owns Central Square?" Cambridge Chronicle. October 14, 1993. Miller, Amy. "Life Goes On In Central Square." Cambridge Chronicle. April 29, 1993. 4 12/9/2004

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tenant, a challenge in a slump market.7 The result was too many empty storefronts and unkempt buildings contributing to a negative perception of the area:

Melissa Silva used to be among the passengers who rode the smoke-spitting buses through Central Square without the slightest desire to venture into the city's least seductive section. No suburban snob, the youthful resident of Jamaica Plain simply didn't like what she saw looking out into the streets of crime and grit.8

Lack of physical appeal was just one of several factors that encouraged a view of Central Square as a transit point rather than a destination. Trucks and cars sped along Massachusetts Avenue, which was four and five lanes at the time, and buses idled in the area, adding to congestion and pollution. The road's width made crossing unsafe for pedestrians: According to Rosalie Anders, head of the City of Cambridge's Pedestrian Committee and a longtime resident, "You definitely felt that it was a big road and that as pedestrians you were kind of clinging to the edges."9 Sidewalks had no benches and were too narrow to promote window-shopping or socializing. In the absence of a dedicated bicycle lane, bicyclists sometimes rode on the sidewalk, adding to the bustle. Residents at the time describe a chaotic streetscape with a disorienting jumble of signs, poles, trash cans, newspaper dispensers, mailboxes, and parking meters, as well as harsh, highway-quality street lighting that was inadequate for anyone but drivers.10 Although this description of Central Square was drawn from various sources, most of it could have been taken directly from the site analysis section of the 1995 "Central Square Improvement Projects Master Plan". One of the plan's many

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Miller, Amy, October 14, 1993. Miller, Amy, April 29, 1993. 9 Anders, Rosalie. Cambridge Pedestrian Committee. Personal Interview. November 30, 2004. 10 "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p. 43. Rekha Murthy 5 12/9/2004

strengths is that it clearly lays out the problems it intends to address, describes each solution in detail, and spends some time on paths not taken. The authoring process began in October, 1994, when Cambridge's Community Development Department brought in private consultants led by the local urban design firm Carr, Lynch, Hack & Sandell (now Carr, Lynch & Sandell). The firm's team, led by Central Square resident Steve Carr, was charged with designing a new form and appearance for Central Square's public space -- the exterior space delineated by streets and sidewalks -- to make it more inviting to the class- and race-diverse community and its visitors. The firm was guided by the 18-member Central Square Committee, comprised of nine residents from the four neighborhoods surrounding the Square and nine members from the Central Square Business Association. The city and the Central Square Committee held several workshops for the larger public to contribute ideas and review drafts of the plan. Steve Carr credits the openness of the process for a strong final plan, nearly all of which was ultimately implemented:

I would define a good plan as one that, by the time it's drafted, there aren't any big issues of controversy unresolved and there aren't any enormous surprises for people who then read the document. A good plan is one where there's been enough process and communication for people to know what's in the document, and for critical [closely involved] people and city officials to feel they've been heard.11

In May, 1995, Carr, Lynch, Hack & Sandell presented the City of Cambridge with a final plan that emphasized Central Square's diversity and potential as a destination for residents and visitors.

The goals of the plan are to make Central Square a destination that encourages pedestrians and cyclists to feel welcome and safe, that supports and enhances its


Carr, Steve. Carr, Lynch & Sandell. Personal Interview. December 6, 2004. 6 12/9/2004

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commercial function, and that better enables and expresses its multi-cultural life... Physical improvements to the Square are essential to meeting these goals...12

To accomplish these goals, the plan focused on two domains: appearance and traffic flows. The appendices included the site analysis as well as a detailed traffic analysis that measured vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian use. While the site analysis supported a reorganization and renovation of public space to make it more pleasant, the traffic analysis showed how a reorganization of traffic flows through that space could bring more people by tilting the car-pedestrian balance toward the pedestrian without making Central Square inaccessible by car.

In summary, the Massachusetts Avenue corridor is intensively occupied on a daily basis by a number of different user groups, whose operating characteristics and needs are often dissimilar. The current design generally provides an inadequate response to serving these users in an efficient and safe manner. However, the corridor has sufficient width to enable modified allocation and better organization to achieve a significantly enhanced operation.13

Herein lies another strength of the plan: its balancing of all of the transportation uses of Central Square. City planners looked to Europe for examples, and saw that making driving just a little more difficult could tip some drivers -- particularly those who use their cars to travel only a few blocks -- to walk instead, without depriving Cambridge of Massachusetts Avenue as an important thoroughfare.14 George Metzger, who co-chaired the Central Square Committee, says that while "change which puts pedestrians in command is a good thing," he does consider cars and trucks as "a real part of the urban fabric" and as necessary to the survival of small businesses, which founder when people have to park far away.15

12 13

"Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p. 3. "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report: Appendix B," p. 49. 14 Anders, Rosalie. November 30, 2004. 15 Metzger, George. HMFH Architects. Personal Interview. December 3, 2004. Rekha Murthy 7 12/9/2004

Some of those who make a living driving around the area -- bus drivers and delivery people -- did complain of more congestion, but planners claim the complaints have died down, and generally the redesign is seen as a success. By framing the problem as one of "space allocation," rather than an antagonistic struggle between vehicles and walkers, the plan set the stage for a bold solution: the narrowing of Massachusetts Avenue from four and five lanes to three:

This reallocation of the street space will provide for the design of a pedestrian friendly Central Square, with new amenities such as benches, bike racks, new trees and pedestrian scale lighting. It will also create a much safer Central Square for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.16

Five-foot-wide bike lanes were incorporated into the new street layout, and sidewalks were widened five feet on both sides of the road. The plan also eliminated a right-turn lane from River Street onto Massachusetts Avenue, making the corner safer for pedestrians and making Carl Barron Plaza a more inviting place to sit, relax, and contemplate the public art installation there.17 The reallocation of existing space was a creative solution that respected the integrity of the traditional urban layout while putting it to new uses. The additional pedestrianized space enabled planners to include quality-of-life improvements intended to boost the area's physical appeal. Some changes were minor: Traffic lights were adjusted to shorten pedestrian wait times, and existing trees were preserved wherever possible. More significant changes such as the addition of new site elements -- bus shelters, lighting, public signage, and benches -- were given

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"Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p. 14. "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p. 17. 8 12/9/2004

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detailed descriptions that showed how each element fit into the planners' vision (Figure 3).

It is important to organize benches in such a way that they are user friendly. Benches that are place alone and oriented parallel to the flow of pedestrian traffic are not usually successful. It is better to locate benches in pairs and to have them face each other to create a social environment for sitting and relaxing. The design character of benches should be consistent with the character of the other site elements, such as lighting and trash receptacles. Materials of the bench should be strong and durable to withstand the urban conditions of Central Square. The bench supports should be steel and the seats themselves wood for comfortable allseason sitting. They should be six feet long for two to sit comfortably and all should have backs.18

Figure 3: Benches

Lighting was another significant change. The plan called for "pedestrian scale fixtures" to remove shadows from sidewalks while retaining the higher street lighting. Attention was paid to light strength, color, and spacing to reinforce the "rhythm" of the new sidewalk layout (Figure 4).


Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p.35. 9 12/9/2004

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Figure 4: Street light (l) and sidewalk light (r)

When describing the design vision for the new elements, Steve Carr doesn't refer to specific urban planning models, but rather to specific goals. He says planners were not guided by one particular model, but instead by a desire to honor Central Square's uniqueness:

We felt that Central Square was not appropriate for implementing an historicist theme like Harvard Square, with its brick, granite, cast iron, "Ye Olde Harvard Square" look. We felt that Central Square was not that kind of place. It's a diverse place: Most of the buildings have changed over time, and a more contemporary design look would be more appropriate.19

The plan's authors generally made their own way, referring less to preceding models and more to local history and local needs. Robert Winters, a member of the Central Square Committee, says the group did keep the 1993 "Growth Policy" document in mind, but that the final 1995 plan is more of a product of the intense negotiations between Carr, Lynch, Hack & Sandell, residents, business owners, and the city.20

19 20

Carr, Steve. December 6, 2004. Winters, Robert. Cambridge activist. Personal Interview. December 4, 2004. 10 12/9/2004

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That level of communication and the regular inclusion of the public made for a climate conducive to planning solutions that might not have been approved elsewhere. The city invited community input without getting mired in stalemates and obstructions. Inclusiveness channeled into a clarity of purpose is essential to good plan-making, and by those criteria the improvements plan succeeds. This is evident in the plan itself: Solutions and the reasoning behind them were explained in plain language so that anyone, not just planners, could understand. George Metzger points out that this is not the first time in the history of urban planning that people decided a particular road exceeded its necessary width, but that the "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan" is one of the few to actually do something about it.21 It helped that the city had a new head of Traffic, Parking & Transportation who wanted to make a name for herself. But the plan gave her a clearly articulated vision to work with. But although the plan's text descriptions were accessible, its illustrations fell short, making these visions for Central Square hard to visualize. Clearer renderings might have eased concerns that a makeover of the Square would leave no room for lower-income people. Many of the illustrations were blurry sketches, and in some cases explanatory labels were unreadably small (Figure 5).


Metzger, George. December 3, 2004. 11 12/9/2004

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Figure 5: Illustration from plan, actual size

Rosalie Anders acknowledges this shortcoming, and also says that in retrospect she would have better addressed the concerns about gentrification in public hearings. Steve Carr did assure Cambridge Chronicle readers at the time that Harvard Square's mall-like gentrification was not a model for Central Square.

...[N]oting the city's great pride in its diversity, particularly in Central Square, [Steve] Carr said part of the challenge is to "find just the right set of changes to make to encourage that diversity, to reflect it." But this, he assured, will be "no simple task."22

It was not a simple task, but it did get done. The $3.6-million "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan" was implemented incrementally in 1996 and 1997 (Figures 6 and 7).

Breneman, John. "Advice Needed: How to Spend $3 Million in Central Square," Cambridge Chronicle, January 5, 1995. Rekha Murthy 12 12/9/2004


Figure 6: Colored glass shelter

Figure 7: Taxi stand, trees, and trash cans

One needs to speak with people who knew Central Square before 1996 to understand how dramatic these streetscape changes sounded on paper. Winning approval is a credit to the plan and its authors. But while the beautification efforts were immediately obvious, their success in revitalizing Central Square is still not so obvious to residents like MIT professor Edward Barrett:

Were the [1996-97] changes immediately evident? Yes, but they seemed to me like changing the scenery in a play while the story remained the same: with all the thinness and shallowness that metaphor implies: they'd gut stores, sandblast the outside or put on new facing materials. But it seemed hollow.23

Kit Rawlins, a Cambridge historian who has lived in Central Square for about 15 years, views that lack of change as one of the plan's successes, because it protected what she loves about the Square -- its diversity and energy -- while encouraging a more convivial sidewalk culture.24 George Metzger notes that homeless people and other vagrants still occupy the benches and sidewalks, but now, due to public space

23 24

Barrett, Edward. "Re: Central Square question." Email to the author. November 27, 2004. Rawlins, Kit. Cambridge Historical Commission. Personal Interview. November 29, 2004. 13 12/9/2004

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improvements as well as changes to Central Square's commercial mix, they blend into a larger scene that brings other people to the Square for nearly round-the-clock activity. People tend to base their decisions about visiting Central Square on perceptions, not reality, of crime and dereliction. Improvements planners were trying to change the perceptions, and in that they made great progress. Robert Winters puts critiques of the plan in perspective.

Overall yes, it's a good plan, because you've got to remember the way it was. People forget that Mass. Ave. was five lanes of traffic; it felt like a highway with some marginal businesses hanging on the edges of the highway... [The plan] didn't singlehandedly change Central Square but it did do a great part.25

Steve Carr, who has prepared many urban plans before and since the Central Square project, also sees it as a success.

I thought this was a fairly unique project, that we could come up with a more integrated public space allowing all that traffic to continue to go through it and still make it a much better place than it was, creating a better balance between cars and people. And that we could make it a more social space... Before, you were scurrying from one place to another. Overall, it's really changed the atmosphere of the Square, made it much more humane.26

But there is more work to be done. Some in the community complain that the bicycle lanes are unsafe (Figure 9) and the street lighting is inadequate. Certain details included in the plan, such as public signs marking Central Square's identity and information kiosks with maps, have not yet been implemented. And while the plan did call on the city to help store owners "improve the quality and clarity of visual communication without suppressing its exuberance," stickers and posters still

25 26

Winters, Robert. December 4, 2004. Carr, Steve. December 6, 2004. 14 12/9/2004

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cover many of the streetscape's surfaces, and some of the commercial signage and storefronts clearly need upgrading (Figure 8).27

Figure 8: Stickers on lightpole

Figure 9: Blocked bike lane

What some call "litter" and others approvingly call "a panoply of street signs that defy orderliness" isn't necessarily a failure of the plan itself, as maintenance was beyond its reach.28 Despite this, the forward-thinking planners did devote an entire section to its importance:

Physical improvements will advance Central Square toward becoming the place that its business-people and users want it to be. How the resulting space is used and managed will, in the long run, be as important as these improvements. While public space management has not been included in the scope of this urban design plan, the designer nonetheless has some recommendations for the consideration of the City and the Central Square Committee.29

Nearly ten years later, the plan's vision as implemented seems to be wellsuited to the Central Square of the 1990s and early 21st century. But cities change

27 28

"Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report: Appendix A," p. 44. Metzger, George. December 3, 2004. 29 "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report," p. 26. Rekha Murthy 15 12/9/2004

constantly, and a few decades from now Central Square's streetscape might need more revision. The value of the 1995 improvements plan is that it can help guide those future developments. Many people came together and worked hard to create a clear vision for Central Square, and their efforts shouldn't fade with time.

Conclusion Is the "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan" a good plan? Everyone I interviewed says "yes," with few qualifications, and I agree. The planmaking process did an excellent job of gathering ideas from the community as well as keeping community members informed of decisions made along the way. The creation of a Central Square Committee streamlined the process while still ensuring that various constituencies were heard. The prescriptions that resulted from these collaborations were in large part implemented, with no major regrets. The planners acknowledge that physical improvements are only one part of an overall revitalization program. This is especially true for older commercial areas like Central Square, where the goal is not to destroy and rebuild, but rather to revitalize without displacing the elements that contribute to its uniqueness and diversity. Developed and implemented concurrently with other revitalization programs in Central Square, the improvement plan's timing increased its chances for success. Equally important is that the document is largely self-contained in the sense that future readers, like myself, can learn not only about the specific actions intended, but also the context in which they were generated, and the visions and goals driving them. It is a document written with the future in mind, and that will help future actors shape the area in a

Rekha Murthy



way consistent with local values, even as the Central Square of 1995 recedes into history.

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List of Figures

Cover page A) "Proposed bus shelter." "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan," p. 24. B) Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 1 "Central Square Overlay District." Community Development Department, City of Cambridge. Figure 2 "Massachusetts Avenue at Prospect Street, 1989." Cambridge Historical Commission. Figure 3 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 4 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 5 "Street cross-section." "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan," p. 14. Figure 6 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 7 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 8 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 9 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004. Figure 10 Photograph by Rekha Murthy, November 30, 2004.

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Anders, Rosalie. Cambridge Pedestrian Committee. Personal Interview. November 30, 2004. Barrett, Edward. "Re: Central Square question." Email to the author. November 27, 2004. Breneman, John. "Advice Needed: How to Spend $3 Million in Central Square," Cambridge Chronicle, January 5, 1995. Carr, Steve. Carr, Lynch & Sandell. Personal Interview. December 6, 2004. City of Cambridge. Community Development Department. "Central Square Improvements Project Master Plan Report." Presented by Carr, Lynch, Hack & Sandell. May, 1995. City of Cambridge. Planning Board and Community Development Department. "Toward a Sustainable Future: Cambridge Growth Policy Document." final draft, February 23, 1993. City of Cambridge. Zoning Ordinance, Article 20.00: Zoning Overlay Districts. 20.302: General Purpose. Metzger, George. HMFH Architects. Personal Interview. December 3, 2004. Miller, Amy. "Who Owns Central Square?" Cambridge Chronicle. October 14, 1993. Miller, Amy. "Life Goes On In Central Square." Cambridge Chronicle. April 29, 1993. Rawlins, Kit. Cambridge Historical Commission. Personal Interview. November 29, 2004. Winters, Robert. Cambridge activist. Personal Interview. December 4, 2004.

For more information, please contact Rekha Murthy at [email protected] or [email protected]

Rekha Murthy




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