Change on the horizon in east campus region

Planning board satisfied with the rezoning petition

5663 kendall
Courtesy of Sarah E. Gallop, Israel Ruiz, and Steve C. Marsh
5664 kendall 2
Brendan Monroe—City of Cambridge.

Mixed-use towers rivaling the Green Building in height may be on the horizon for MIT’s east campus after members of the Cambridge Planning Board commended MIT’s Kendall rezoning petition at a meeting Tuesday evening. The board is expected to formally recommend the petition to the City Council early next month.

MIT’s petition would allow for denser and taller retail, commercial, rental, and academic development in a 26-acre region owned by the Institute that includes Senior House, the Sloan School of Management, and the Kendall T-stop’s southern entrance. The proposal, prepared by MIT and MIT Investment Management Company, is the product of three years of meetings, community discussions, presentations, and revisions.

The Planning Board meeting came just after the publication of the latest issue of the Faculty Newsletter, which included an editorial highly critical of the petition and process behind it. The newsletter also reprinted nine past articles related to the MIT Kendall initiative that expressed a range of concerns, including worries about the future of graduate housing and the limited involvement of faculty in the process.

No members of the faculty spoke during the public hearing at the Planning Board meeting, where the comments from both the board and members of the community were almost all positive. Hugh Russell, chair of the board, held up a piece of paper with a list of concerns regarding the petition that he had compiled earlier. “Almost everything has been addressed,” he said. “I’m very happy with where we are.”

The board expressed satisfaction with the efforts to align MIT’s petition with the city’s K2 initiative. MITIMCo has worked closely with the Community Development Department on language regarding sustainability and design guidelines.

But Jonathan A. King, biology professor and chair of the Faculty Newsletter editorial board, maintains that the petition fails to address a number of issues, most importantly the rising rents and scarce vacancies that graduate students face. “The data is clear: there’s a rental housing crisis,” he said, referring to statistics cited in an article by Graduate Student Council president Brian Spatocco G.

King said that in moving forward with the petition, which would allow for new commercial space in east campus, MIT was effectively ignoring “years of agitation from graduate students” about the lack of housing. “No group of the faculty, of the graduates, or of the undergraduates has said that there’s a shortage of commercial office space on campus.”

Provost Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’87 announced on Feb. 5 that a Graduate Student Housing Working Group, to be chaired by Urban Studies Professor and former Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, would conduct a study on graduate housing needs.

The Faculty Newsletter’s editorial worries that the group “will only yield feedback after construction decisions have been made.”

Announcements to the faculty, at Planning Board meetings, and on MIT News have estimated the study’s completion to be anywhere from the end of the term, June, the end of the year, and in 12 to 18 months. Clay declined to comment on a timeline for the study to The Tech, noting that the group has not yet been formed.

According to Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz SM ’01, there will still be plenty of opportunities to address specific concerns such as graduate housing within the framework of the petition, which he hopes will pass the City Council by mid-April. (If it does not, the petition will expire.)

The petition would require a minimum of 240,000 square feet of new residential (market-price) space and a maximum of 980,000 square feet of commercial space, leaving 854,000 square feet in the zone for institutional development, which includes academic buildings, laboratories, and dormitories.

O. Robert Simha, MIT’s retired planning director, expressed doubts about MITIMCo’s intentions. “One always wants to take people at their word. The track record so far is not one that would lead one to believe that they’re interested in transparency and full opportunity to debate this limited amount of land and its use by the institution,” he said. Simha was present at the Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, but he left just as the public hearing began. “I felt they had already made up their minds and did not feel any comments I made would be helpful to them at this point,” he told The Tech afterwards.

The use of MIT’s land for commercial offices has met with opposition from some faculty, including those on the Faculty Newsletter editorial board. But the editorial does acknowledge the significant income ($20 to $30 million annually) MIT would receive by leasing its space to companies.

Still, King finds a corporate presence on campus unwelcome. “The MITIMCo petition represents major changes to the tradition — I would say philosophy — of MIT as a research institution, proposing to locate two very large commercial buildings in the center of east campus.” The commercial buildings would be located just south of Main Street where there are currently parking lots, which would be replaced by underground garages.

Steve C. Marsh, managing director of real estate at MITIMCo, sees it differently. “If you will give us the opportunity to retain [current] capacity for academic investment in the future, we’ll use this commercial activity to get these knowledge-based companies into our innovation cluster,” he said. “This makes Kendall Square better, makes MIT better. We’re bringing in talent. We’re bringing in an exciting ecosystem. We’ll use that opportunity to revitalize Kendall Square.”

Many community members who spoke at the Planning Board public hearing were similarly enthusiastic about the upzoning of Kendall Square. “The mixed use nature of the plan is so special and so needed. This is really Kendall Square’s moment in the sun. Hopefully it lasts a while,” Brian Dacey of the Cambridge Innovation Center said.

But as the petition process nears its end, some faculty members have felt that not all of the stakeholders have had their voices heard.

At the faculty meeting on Wednesday, Provost Kaiser and faculty chair Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75 gave brief presentations about the Kendall Square initiative, which were followed by comments from Jonathan King and literature professor Ruth Perry, who argued that campus planning should involve more than real estate executives.

In an interview with The Tech, King called for more “democratic, parliamentary debate” involving the faculty, which he said has been lacking from the process. While he commended the report of the faculty task force formed last year, he noted that the task force was appointed by the provost and not nominated and elected as, say, a committee on the undergraduate curriculum would be.

To such concerns, Ruiz notes the numerous times that the Kendall initiative has reached out to the community with meetings and brainstorming sessions since April 2010.

MIT is next scheduled to meet with the Cambridge Ordinance Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

See maps of the MIT petition area’s current and proposed height limits at