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Meet the man who is redeveloping Harvard Square Cinema

  • Commercial property developer Dick Friedman
  • The historic Harvard Square Theater in Boston is being redeveloped by Dick Friedman.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — It could have been a scene from a movie.

INTERIOR: ELEGANT HOME NEAR HARVARD SQUARE.

It’s early on a July morning. Dick Friedman is getting ready for work. Tanned and fit, with close-cropped silver hair, the 5ft 6in former championship skier doesn’t look within shouting distance of his 71 years.

Friedman is home alone. His wife and two sons are at the Friedmans’ estate on Martha’s Vineyard.

A commercial property developer acclaimed for his creative transformation of a rail yard and a jail into luxurious hotels, Friedman is mulling over plans for his latest project — the redevelopment of historic Harvard Square Cinema.

Friedman comes downstairs. He opens his front door to get his morning paper, swears and jumps back.

A man is sleeping by Friedman’s door. Awakened by Friedman’s exclamation, the man rouses himself and stands up. He looks to be in his 70s. He is tall and lanky, clean-shaven and sober.

FRIEDMAN: You scared the **** out of me!

MAN: I’m sorry, sir. I just came to get out of the cold.

FRIEDMAN: Is there something I can do to help you?

MAN: No. Thank you. I can take care of myself.

The man backs away and walks off down the street. Friedman waits a few moments, and then tries to follow. The man is nowhere to be seen.

THREE WEEKS LATER. EXTERIOR.

Friedman is driving home late from work and sees the same man. He turns off the lights in his car, slows to a crawl and follows. The man walks by Friedman’s house. Friedman continues to follow but loses him in the winding streets of Cambridge.

FRIEDMAN: (To himself, as he heads back home) I’m going to find this guy. When I do, I’m going to help him.

It could be a scene from a movie, perhaps one of the five that Dick Friedman has acted in, courtesy of his friendship with playwright David Mamet.

But it’s not. Friedman’s encounter with a well-mannered vagrant is real, as is his desire to find out what forced a man to find refuge on the porch of a stranger.

Richard L Friedman cares about people in trouble. Perhaps it’s a legacy from his mother, Helen, a Boston social worker who established a home for unwed mothers and was active in the early days of Planned Parenthood.

Or maybe it’s the influence of his father, Aryeh, a property manager whose honesty and integrity left an indelible mark on his only son.

Whatever its genesis, the multimillionaire, with homes in Cambridge, the Vineyard, Aspen and Tortola, and a brand new Porsche Panamera, is spending his 72nd year thinking as much about developing human potential as developing property.

Aside from a legal dispute he won’t talk about (“I picked the wrong guy to fight with”), and a disagreement with his neighbours on Martha’s Vineyard over erosion-related property rights, Friedman keeps a deliberately low profile.

Those who work with him appreciate his direct manner, admire his creativity and envy his energy.

His assistant, April Soderstrom, says her boss “doesn’t hide his thoughts. I know what he’s thinking and feeling because he says it”.

His architect, Cambridge Seven principal Gary Johnson, says the two have learned to speak in a sort of shorthand, noting: “I may not always agree with him but have learned over the years that Dick is more often right than wrong.”

General manager of The Charles Hotel, Alex Attia, says: “God bless him, the only time he’s going to slow down is when we bury him in the courtyard of the Charles.”

On an August afternoon, Friedman sits at a round granite table in the corner of his Cambridge office.

Dressed casually in a flecked blue knit shirt, navy jeans and leather deck shoes, he explains that he’s re-evaluating his priorities.

Friedman is, by any standard, enormously successful. Now, he wants to be as effective in giving his money away as he has been in making it.

“We make donations through the Friedman Family Foundation,” he says, pausing as he notices a colleague walking toward the company’s offices.

Friedman tries to get his attention, gesturing thumbs up-thumbs down as if asking about a business deal’s outcome.

“We give a lot of small donations to things like healthcare and to disadvantaged children with educational issues. I haven’t been overly generous yet.

“I basically have the view that I’m doing so well with investments that charities are better off if I grow the foundation before giving it all away.”

Friedman likes Bill Clinton’s philosophy for giving.

He hosted the former president and his family on Martha’s Vineyard throughout the ‘90s and they’ve been close friends ever since. Clinton evaluates charities by how efficiently use their donations.

The approach suits Friedman, who, for all the ambitious projects he’s taken on, says he’s essentially cautious and risk-averse.

A year ago, Clinton asked Friedman to help him redevelop Haiti, still in shambles after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the country in 2010.

“Haiti is exotic. Beautiful. Wonderful,” Friedman says. “But there is incredible human plight and great disorganisation.

“I don’t think I can make much of a difference, but I can do some things to help create jobs. Maybe build a hotel, help some artisans.

“I’ll try to do something that has a significant impact on a small area.”

Friedman grew up in Brookline, a town bordering Boston, and attended Pierce Elementary School.

After three years at Brookline High, his teachers suggested that the hyperactive teenager “would do better if he went somewhere else”.

His parents sent him to Hebron Academy, a small private school in Maine where he excelled at skiing.

It was a pastime Friedman had grown to love during outings in New Hampshire and Vermont with his father as a child.

Friedman studied philosophy at Dartmouth College and was a member of the ski team.

He enlisted in the US Army after he graduated, serving as an officer in the Signal Corps before being honourably discharged in 1965.

For the next six years, he coached the Harvard Ski Team until he broke his neck in a skiing accident.

Friedman had “a long stay” in hospital recovering from a compression fracture of his C2 and C3 vertebra that could have left him paralysed.

After helping his father manage buildings for Carpenter & Company, Friedman bought the business after its owner passed away.

Friedman tackled complex and challenging development projects, (“this is not for the faint of heart,” says Gary Johnson), balancing a respect for history and preservation with a focus on the bottom line.

He won numerous awards, held influential federal positions at the invitation of Presidents Obama and Clinton and was named one of Boston’s most powerful people by Boston magazine.

While he ponders the redevelopment of the Harvard Square Cinema (Johnson says the two will “take every care to preserve what they can” about the iconic structure), Dick Friedman considers the man who fell asleep on his porch.

“He was a nice gentleman. Looked like a Harvard professor. He probably spends the day in one place and nights somewhere else.

“I’m going to find this man and help him out.”

For those who have learned to take Dick Friedman at his word, there’s no doubt he will do just that.