MIT unresponsive on Kendall development

Faculty Task Force formed, but report not released until later this fall

5145 kendall twoplans
SOURCE: Iram Farooq, Cambridge Community development. Illustrations by Minjee Kim G.
5149 kendall koch
Concerns about the Koch Institute’s frontage on Main Street, above, have been repeatedly brought up by Cambridge Planning Board. See sidebar article, p. 7. Some board members felt there is too much dead space in Main Street’s retail, isolating the new 610 Main (Pfizer) to the west from Kendall Square to the east.
Arthur Petron—The Tech

With six hours of public meetings on Kendall and Central Squares this week across two committees, the city is trying to decide between competing plans for Kendall Square, but MIT has still not weighed in definitively on its intentions.

The provost has launched a faculty committee to advise him in determining MIT’s position, but it only formed last month.

Additionally, the Cambridge Historical Commission has set its sights on designating three MIT buildings on Main Street as landmarks, further limiting the options.

There are more questions than there are answers, and there is no semblance of a clear timeline for resolution.

Faculty task force formed

On Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, Provost Chris A. Kaiser announced to the faculty that he had appointed a “Task Force on Community Engagement in 2030 Planning” chaired by former chair of the faculty Thomas A. Kochan (Management).

The committee is charged with advising the provost about “decisions related specifically to the development of MIT property in Kendall Square” as well as figuring out how to engage the MIT community in the MIT 2030 decision process. “MIT 2030” refers to MIT’s future real estate development planning effort.

The committee’s appointment is a reaction to criticism among the faculty of MIT’s development process, as articulated in articles in the Faculty Newsletter and a statement by nine faculty read at the May faculty meeting by Professor Jonathan A. King (Biology). Faculty expressed concern that land historically reserved for academic use was being allotted to commercial development, and that it might not be possible to ever reclaim that property in the future as academic needs increased.

Kochan said on Wednesday that the committee was still working on finding its way, and expected to have a recommendation some time this fall.

E38, E39, E48 as landmarks?

A complicating factor in future Kendall development is the potential designation of three MIT buildings along Main Street as historical landmarks: E38, the MIT Press bookstore at 292 Main St. (“Suffolk Engraving Building”); E39, with Rebecca’s Cafe at 264 Main St. (“J. L. Hammet Building”); and E48, the Kendall clock tower building (“Kendall Square Building”) at 238 Main St., which houses the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) and some Sloan programs.

When MIT first proposed changes to Kendall in the spring of 2011, it envisioned an open crossroads reminiscent of Times Square in the area where E38 is now. In addition to demolishing E38 in entirety, it would have removed much of E39.

But Charles Sullivan, the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, objected. The commission began evaluating the buildings and working with MITIMCo in July, 2011, and encouraging them to find a plan for MIT’s Kendall properties that retains the three buildings.

Sullivan and his staff produced a report in July 2012 recommending the six-member commission designate those buildings as landmarks. The commission chose not to vote on the proposal to designate the buildings as landmarks at its July 17 meeting, but Sullivan strongly supports it.

At Tuesday night’s planning board meeting, city planning staff seemed to assume that MIT’s revised proposal would keep those buildings untouched. Steven C. Marsh, MITIMCo’s managing director for real estate, said: “We have heard loud and clear, certainly from the Historical Commission. … We’re committed to seeing if we can make it work.”

But such a move could be potentially disastrous for MIT’s future flexibility.

“It is a goddamn disaster,” said O. Robert Simha, MIT’s retired planning director. Simha has repeatedly spoken out opposing MITIMCo’s proposed development of property south of Main Street for other than academic use.

“You will never have the kind of quality open space that would be possible there,” Simha said. “It could be a sun-filled space that would really complement and enhance the quality of life.”

“Secondly, those buildings are dogs,” he said. “We have spent millions of dollars over the years trying to make them work for academic purposes, and they just eat money.… It is just throwing good money after bad.”

“These buildings have no merit,” Simha said.

But, as a member of the planning board said: “In this political world, if you go against Charlie Sullivan, you pay a price.”

Dueling visions at planning board

At the meeting of the Cambridge Planning Board on Tuesday Sep. 4, MIT’s plan for its portion of Kendall was center-stage, with 15 staff members from MIT in attendance (Facilities and MITIMCo staff; no faculty were in attendance). This was the third of several recent meetings focused on Kendall Square zoning issues.

Over the summer, the board had looked at two different approaches to Kendall zoning. The first was the proposal from the city’s consultants, Goody Clancy & Associates, which was produced in conjunction with the Kendall Square Advisory Committee and was the result of scores of public meetings.

The second was a proposal paid for by the East Cambridge Planning Team (a neighborhood association), and executed by CBT Architects (the CBT plan) in March. The CBT plan had previously been presented to the planning board, and the board had asked the city’s staff to try to cherry-pick the best features of both proposals and integrate them together.

Iram Farooq, a senior planner in the city’s Community Development, began Tuesday’s meeting with a 45-minute presentation of options for the MIT-owned areas of Kendall.

The CBT proposal recommended more residential space. It envisioned 446,000 square feet of residential space within the MIT area, as opposed to 200,000 square feet in the Goody Clancy proposal. The CBT proposal also has less commercial space than the Goody Clancy plan: 776,000 square feet versus 1 million.

Farooq’s presentation also included illustrations of how the building forms might appear in each option. The figures were produced by Minjee Kim, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning who interned with the city this summer. Kim has also illustrated the first round of detailed zoning language presented to the board on Aug. 7.

As visualized in the presentation, CBT’s proposal includes a residential high-rise on the current site of E39; discussion at the meeting seemed to assume that historical preservation would take that option off the table.

The board made no decisions between the two plans, but spent the time absorbing the options and becoming more familiar with them. They also recognized a need to wait for MIT to express its intention.

It’s “our petition”

Planning board chairman Hugh Russell emphasized that while MIT had said “when we [MIT] file our petition,” he hoped that when the petition gets filed, it would be “our petition,” meaning belonging to both the Board and the MIT. A joint effort.

“I think it’s best for the city if what gets filed has a built-in constituency of everyone who is in the room,” Russell said.

After Farooq, MIT went on to present its current view of its intentions. MIT’s presentation was fairly high-level; it was given by MITIMCo’s Marsh and by MIT’s hired architect, David Manfredi of Elkus-Manfredi Associates.

The most significant aspect of MIT’s talk was to note that they intend the housing portion of their proposal to be adjacent to One Broadway, on the north side of Main Street. MIT proposes this to be consistent with the recent increase in residential and retail activity along the “Third Street corridor,” adjacent to One Broadway.

Planning board vice chairman Thomas Anninger asked quite pointedly: “We can’t keep talking at this level…When will you be ready? When can we schedule the next meeting to achieve that next round of, call it negotiation?”

There was a ten second pause as MIT struggled to figure out how to respond.

Marsh stood up and acknowledged that he really did not know and he was “hopeful that it is very soon,” and mentioned giving the new MIT President, L. Rafael Reif, a chance to provide his input.

The planning board will meet again next week Tuesday, and while it will discuss Kendall, MIT issues will not be at the fore. MIT is expected to be the focus of the Oct. 2. 2012 meeting.

1 Comment
Anonymous about 11 years ago

I've worked in E38 for 20 years - it has mediocre office space and is pretty hopeless as a Lab space. The old, industrial Kendall Square is gone, replaced with soulless, corporatist architecture that repels all humans. I don't see what "character" there is to preserve, and a bit of "open space" won't help. Kendall, like Tech Square, glorifies big corporations and wealthy donors -- not worth squabbling about.