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MIT filing a new Kendall Square zoning petition

MIT announced last Tuesday that it would file a new zoning petition for its area of Kendall Square “as soon as possible.” The changes will be presented in advance to the Cambridge Planning Board on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 4, and the formal filing is expected to soon follow.

MIT is trying to build a new grand gateway to the Institute from the Kendall Square T-stop area, and to support the construction of additional campus buildings as well as commercial office buildings. This process is being run by the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). The area under consideration is the part of campus east of Ames Street, including the south side of Main Street.

The announcement came in a letter to the faculty from Provost Christopher A. Kaiser PhD ’87. It followed five weeks after the Provost’s faculty task force on the MIT 2030 process produced its report.

While filing the zoning change is consistent with the outlines of the faculty report, some have argued that MIT is moving too fast, with undue pressure from the city.

At the October faculty meeting, Professor Richard de Neufville (ESD) questioned why MIT was intending to file a zoning petition so quickly, when MIT does not clearly understand its own needs. For instance, the report asks MIT to look closely at campus housing needs, especially for graduate students, whose needs are approaching crisis.

The provost declined to answer de Neufville’s question at the meeting, citing confidentiality. But Kaiser’s letter announcing the filing did say he would be pursuing a study of housing needs.

Also, the Cambridge Planning Board had asked MIT in September to work with it to develop the zoning petition, so that it would be a joint effort — in the words of the board’s chairman: “our petition.” But that has not happened.

Planning Board meeting

The same evening the provost announced MIT’s petition, the Cambridge Planning Board met to discuss general Kendall Square zoning recommendations that would apply to far more than MIT’s areas. This is part of the city’s $350,000 Kendall-to-Central Square process (K2C2) that looks at zoning changes for all of those areas.

At the meeting, the board discussed MIT’s planned presentation. Russell, the chair, said that MIT would be privately presenting a preview of the plan to him and some city staff members this week, in advance of the Dec. 4 preview to the board at large.

Russell said it was important for MIT to preview the changes to the board prior to the formal petition because the laws about amending petitions are very strict, and it would not be possible to make some kinds of changes after the petition is filed without waiting months for the petition to expire.

Russell suggested that MIT’s failure to work with the board was not because of a substantive objection on MIT’s part, but instead because of procedural and bureaucratic limitations that arise from a conflict with the Institute’s decision-making rules and the laws that govern the planning board’s operations.

Landmark issue

The issue of whether MIT can design a majestic gateway to its campus from the Kendall Square T-stop area without demolishing E38, the MIT Press Building, remains a large open question.

MIT’s original conception for its Kendall zoning, as presented in April 2011, involved tearing down E38 and E39: the MIT Press building and the Rebecca’s Café building. But the Cambridge Historical Commission has expressed a desire to designate those buildings, as well as E48 (the Kendall clock tower building), as landmarks, preserving their historical appearance.

MIT has repeatedly said it will be trying to see if it can preserve those buildings while still creating a “significant eastern gateway.”

Kaiser said MIT will launch a “participative conceptual design process” to examine the gateway area, and that MIT would consider options with and without E38 and E39.

The buildings have been characterized as hard to maintain, and their floors are different heights, making it difficult to connect them to each other, or to other buildings. Preserving them could severely limit MIT’s future development.

But pressure seems to be mounting for MIT to not fight to keep those buildings as landmarks.

A proposal to allow MIT to transfer its development rights for landmarked buildings was presented to the planning board by Iram Farooq, who leads the K2C2 process for the city’s Community Development Department. It would permit MIT to transfer the development rights it would normally have for those buildings onto other areas within its zoning district. That is, that MIT would be given an incentive to retain E38, E39, and E48 as landmarks by allowing MIT to build higher and denser on other parcels.

When asked why she favored retaining landmark status, rather than being neutral, Farooq said in an email that the city staff “think retaining the assemblage of three historic buildings on Main St. is an important element of grounding Kendall Square in its history.”

Farooq said, “it would help enhance the creation of an exciting urban gateway on the Kendall Square side of the MIT campus, better connecting the campus to the rest of the city.”

When most of the old industrial buildings in the Kendall Square area were leveled during urban renewal in the 1960s, Farooq said, “planners thought they would be able to create great spaces if only they could get rid of those pesky old buildings that were in the way. In most instances that has not turned out to be the case and much richer environments have been fostered where development occurred in the context of an existing historic context.”

With the city advocating for landmark designation and incentivizing it, it’s not clear who is lobbying against that designation. The faculty 2030 task force appears to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and MITIMCo has stated it will try to preserve them if it can while building its gateway. But no one seems to be concerned that those building are hard to maintain and do not integrate well with the rest of the campus.

The provost’s letter also said that MIT would retain the three buildings in its zoning proposal, but this is misleading. MIT has agreed that its zoning proposal will not specify the destruction of the buildings, but it is not the nature of zoning proposals to destroy or preserve individual buildings. Instead, zoning specifies parameters of a district, such as the maximum height, the maximum floor area ratio, required kinds of building and housing units, additional payments for parks and transportation funds, etc.

Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, said that the Commission had informally agreed to defer voting to designate the three buildings as landmarks until the zoning process completes. Previously, the Commission had formally agreed to defer action through Jan. 8, 2013.

General zoning provisions

Beyond the MIT specifics, the planning board also discussed general Kendall Square zoning changes at its Oct. 30 meeting. Farooq presented a memo detailing changes to six categories: active ground floor use, middle-income housing, innovation office space, community investments, sustainability, and parking.

The middle-income housing zoning changes engendered a healthy discussion. Under the proposal, developers who wish to build residential towers greater than 250 feet in height would need to devote 25 percent of the space above 250 feet to middle-income housing. Because such buildings would be limited to 300 feet, that comes out to about three percent of the space in the building, which could be distributed anywhere in the building.

Russell, the chairman, pointed out that there was a huge mismatch between the three percent supply and the number of middle income workers working in Kendall Square which he estimated to be between 20 and 50 percent. Russell seemed very concerned by this, and the city’s affordable housing expert, Chris Cotter, agreed. “There is certainly a supply and demand mismatch,” Cotter said.

But neither the board nor the city staff presenting appeared to have any suggestions for how to improve the amount of middle income housing without disincentivizing developers from building housing. Because there is such an extreme shortage of housing and a fear that developers will build commercial properties instead of housing properties, concerns about disincentives are very real.

Russell said after the meeting that he did not have the answers either, but was concerned that the affordable housing proposal was too modest.