MIT Kendall plans spark debate

Forum discusses offices, retail, & housing on east campus

5612 kendall
Courtesy of israel ruiz

MIT’s latest rezoning petition, which would bring commercial and residential developments as well as new academic buildings to east campus, prompted concern from students and drew criticism from faculty and staff at a forum about Kendall Square plans on Wednesday. The topics discussed included the future of graduate housing and the broader question of how the petition would serve MIT’s interests.

Hosted jointly by the Undergraduate Association, the Graduate Student Council, and the Postdoctoral Association, Wednesday’s forum was an unusual gathering of many segments of the MIT community, though more than half of the around 200 attendees were graduate students.

The forum began with an overview of the rezoning petition from Steve C. Marsh of the MIT Investment Management Corporation and Israel Ruiz SM ’01, executive vice president and treasurer of MIT. Marsh and Ruiz highlighted revisions to the petition made in response to worries expressed in the faculty newsletter and feedback from a faculty task force formed in August. These changes included conditions on the increase in the building height limit and a doubling of the multifamily residential space required by the petition as part of the 1.1 million square feet of commercial development.

While the comments and questions that followed represented a diversity of opinions, many of the students and the invited staff and faculty speakers shared a sentiment that the petition did not sufficiently address the housing situation of graduate students.

“Graduate students are the engine of MIT R&D productivity,” biology professor Jonathan A. King said. “Their most pressing need is decent, affordable housing.” The MITIMCo petition ignores this need and proposes commercial office towers in the center of east campus.” The proposed sites for commercial development are on the corridor of parking lots just south of Main Street.

The petition allows for 300 new units of housing.

King said that new commercial space would not affect the rental market favorably. “The people working there will want to live nearby. I can guarantee that those people are making a lot more than you are.”

A recurring topic was the high cost and low vacancy rate of rental housing in the area. One graduate student stood up and announced his annual income, challenging the presenters to explain how he could afford to pay the rent and support his family.

Robert Winters, mathematics lecturer, said that the housing situation has changed much in the past four decades. Previously, graduate students didn’t mind closer quarters, and costs were much lower. He claimed, to applause, that since 1985 he has not increased the rent for graduate students living at a property he owns.

Ruiz suggested that the money MIT made from corporate tenants could feed back into funding for graduate students. He said that the annual contributions from Pfizer, Novartis, and Sanofi would total $30 million, equivalent to a $600 million boost to the endowment, larger than any gift in history.

Martin Schmidt, associate provost and EECS professor, also defended the commercial portion of the petition, saying that any plan for the campus has to satisfy “boundary conditions” and “stand on its own financial legs.”

Linda Patton, assistant director of off-campus housing, was not optimistic about the future of graduate housing, calling it an “economic problem” that “MIT cannot solve,” noting increases in demand for housing due to big companies moving into the area. “We try to accommodate 50 percent of graduate students, but the graduate population keeps increasing. We take two steps forward and three steps back.”

King and others also stressed that graduate work is very difficult with a long daily commute. “Every faculty member who runs a wet lab knows that.”

While the current Kendall petition does not include housing specifically for graduate students, Ruiz and Marsh said that the northwest end of campus might see such developments in the future. They also emphasized that the petition would be an “envelope” plan within in which specifics could be worked out after it passed the City Council.

It was announced to faculty earlier this week that an institute study on student housing was to be completed this term and chaired by Urban Studies professor and former chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75.

Some commenters found the introduction of commercial space on campus unwelcome for reasons unconnected to the issue of housing. A couple of speakers worried about interference with open intellectual exchange.

O. Robert Simha MCP ’57, former director of campus planning (1960­–2001), was opposed to east campus properties being used for anything other than academic growth. “It took us many, many years for us to acquire this land,” he said. He was also reluctant to see the MIT cityscape change. “Tall buildings do not work at MIT. The one we have does not work.”

Literature professor Ruth Perry called the line between the commercial and the academic “perilously thin in this era of tech startups.” She predicted that commercial buildings would “change the character” of campus and “dilute the community feeling.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, those like Perry were concerned about whose interests were being defended in the campus planning process.

It’s not that there has been no input from non-administrators in the planning process. Thomas Kochan, professor of management, advocated that MIT move forward with the petition, bearing in mind several conditions, in line with the recommendations of the faculty task force appointed last year.

But, Perry called Ruiz and Marsh’s portrayal of the inclusion of faculty in the process “misleading.” “It’s probably a mistake to have real estate executives in charge of campus planning.”

The petition is slated to be voted on by the City Council in April, according to Ruiz.

The viewpoints at the forum are certainly not new. Most recently in January, ten senior faculty members sent a letter to the Planning Board in January warning that “this use of limited campus land for commercial development will undermine MIT’s unique abilities to contribute to solving national problems through education and advanced research, and it will dilute its contribution to the Cambridge community.”

Winters said, “This is not for the planning board to decide. This is for MIT to decide.”