Scout magazine reports that Flat Patties may be the next local business to close in Harvard Square but not until later this year. In late 2017 Asana Partners, a Charlotte-based real estate equity firm with holdings valued at $15B, bought a chunk of the Brattle Street commercial district in what more and more appears to be a hostile takeover. The purchase price of $108M indicates that the longer term play is to entirely redevelop the site, but in the meantime they are extracting as much value as they can from the primarily independent small business tenants. if you need an example of the type of new tenant they favor look no further than the combined fast food eatery &Pizza and Milk Bar, which opens this week.
I am quoted: “I had a call with a couple of principals of Asana, where I expressed dismay that a very popular business was closing, and my hopes that future negotiations with businesses that have been on that block and have a loyal clientele would be more successful,” she says. “I tried to impress on them that there’s a delicate balance of local versus chain ownership, that people are extremely disturbed at the changes they’re seeing in Harvard Square. It’s got everybody on edge, and I tried to convey that, that it would be in their interest if they could find a way to work with these local businesspeople.”
I was trying to be measured in using the word “dismay” — “disgust” was the tone of my conversation with Chris Dalton and Sam Judd of Asana. I followed up with a letter to them today:
Chris and Sam,
Following up on our phone call in early December about Harvard Square, I wanted to share this article from Scout magazine on the rumors that Flat Patties may be the next local business forced to close because of a significant rent increase.
I used the word “dismay” in describing to the Scout reporter my feelings about the situation, but I was being diplomatic. Public opinion is strongly against how Asana is operating in our community. Despite the Harvard Sq Business Association’s attempt to characterize this as normal turnover and a factor of changing consumer preference, it is plainly not. Over 5,000 people signed a petition to save Crema after it announced its closing; they will to prefer to patronize an Australian chain cafe. Cambridge Local First used the correct term to describe Asana’s stance in its lease negotiations: “extractive.”
The situation in Harvard Square is increasingly dismal, and all the stores are bracing for a prolonged downturn of foot traffic. Across Brattle Street the majority of the stores are now closed in anticipation of the demolition and redevelopment to come by Regency. On the kiosk-MBTA plaza, the T’s elevator is still scaffolded and closed for construction. This summer the bus tunnels will be closed for construction at the same time as the City begins renovating the historic Kiosk building and reconfiguring the brick plaza and landscaping. The City has given Out of Town News a 3-month extension of its lease and may grant another 3-month renewal to keep the space occupied until construction begins. The Kiosk’s future use has not been decided but it will be more public-focused than commercial. The former movie theater on Church Street is making its way through the permitting process and another massive construction project may begin before these other projects are completed. The anticipated disruption from these projects was known at the time Asana purchased and should have been a signal that your firm’s interventions would need to be carefully calibrated so as not to further wreck the delicate balance of the retail ecosystem.
Any objective observer would say that from a community relations standpoint Asana’s first year as a property owner in Harvard Square has been an unmitigated disaster. Reports are that repeated attempts to contact you by your tenants and representatives of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association have been ignored. It is probably naive to hope that Asana’s priorities and practices will change going forward, but we do expect that you will begin to live up to the company’s promise to operate with“transparency, integrity and accountability” and to be more “hands-on” in engaging with our community.
I have cc’ed Mayor McGovern and City Manager DePasquale.
Jan Devereux, Vice Mayor
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA