Hurdle cleared for Kendall portal to MIT

East campus office towers to join tech hub, rival Green Building

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A rendering of a possible design for MIT’s new eastern “gateway” at the Kendall T stop. The gateway is intended to mirror the grandeur of 77 Mass. Ave. The larger building in the right foreground will likely be a commercial office or lab building.
courtesy of sarah gallop
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The Kendall T stop, as viewed from the Marriott Hotel.
Courtesy of Sarah Gallop

Biotech and tech companies are clustered so densely around MIT’s campus, especially to the east, that they leave an MIT-shaped hole on a map.

With walking distance of the Kendall T stop are Amgen, Biogen Idec, Genzyme, Novartis, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Akamai, not to mention the hundreds of startups housed in places like the Cambridge Innovation Center.

The buzz about the “innovation cluster” — the “envy of the world,” one state official called it — has made MIT’s easternmost holdings prime real estate. Yet that part of campus, just across Main Street from many of these companies, is mostly an unimpressive collection of parking lots.

But change is afoot in what’s often seen as the last undeveloped region of MIT’s campus. MIT wants to bring corporate Kendall Square down south of Main Street and liven it up for pedestrians with some ground-floor retail.

MIT cleared a major hurdle for the project in April 2013 when it pushed what became a politicized rezoning of east campus through City Council in a final bout of dealmaking.

The project is part of the MIT 2030 framework, but it’s poised to shape Kendall Square and MIT for the better part of a century.

Within MIT, the rezoning sparked debate about graduate student housing and the line between the academic and the commercial. For the city, the rezoning was in many ways a familiar struggle of urban development, the struggle between those ready for change — the glass high-rises, the imported affluence — and those wary of it.

A vibrant gateway

The plan is to build two or three office buildings along the MIT side of Main Street as well as a residential tower at One Broadway, which together would bring MIT an estimated $20 to $30 million each year in leases and rent.

If they are built to their maximum height of 300 feet, the new buildings would be taller than the Green Building, not counting the radio and weather equipment on the roof.

What warms the city up to these corporate complexes is that they generate tax revenue, unlike academic buildings. So MIT helps to develop the city, increasing the valuation of its own property — it’s not a new strategy for MIT, which also owns University Park and Technology Square. Decades from now, when leases are up and MIT’s research needs have expanded, the buildings could join the academic campus proper.

“We’ll use this commercial activity to get these knowledge-based companies into our innovation cluster,” said Steven C. Marsh, the head of the real estate team at the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). “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.”

Both the city and MIT also want to change Kendall Square’s reputation as a business-hours-only office park. Early renderings have included plazas and public green spaces, and both the new zoning and a recent city study call for as much. Fountains and even a riverwalk from Point Park down through the Sloan School have been proposed. MITIMCo models feature colorful storefronts and outdoor tables with umbrellas. In community forums, residents and students have asked for restaurants, grocery stores, and other amenities.

It’s not just a livelier streetscape that MITIMCo has in mind. The Kendall T stop area and its neighboring buildings are to be transformed into an eastern “gateway” to MIT — an architectural statement as obvious and iconic as 77 Massachusetts Ave. The proposal is like 77, but modern — one drawing from before the rezoning even has buildings adorned with lights, screens, and ribbons. “MIT-ness” is the term thrown around by MITIMCo and the design firms hired since the rezoning.

An outspoken opponent

Not everyone, however, has been on board with MIT’s plans.

In the months leading up to the City Council vote on the rezoning petition that would make MITIMCo’s plans possible, opponents of the rezoning called on the Council to vote it down.

Especially vocal was biology professor Jonathan A. King, who at City Council meetings broke the image of a united Institute coming forward with a vision for Kendall Square.

King is also the chairman of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, which circulated a petition for a one-year moratorium on all “up-zoning” in Kendall Square and other places. The petition cited concerns about density, rents, traffic, safety, gentrification, air quality, noise, and blocked sky views.

King argued in particular that the plans would exacerbate a graduate housing crisis.

“Graduate students are the engine of MIT R&D productivity,” King said at a forum in February last year. “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 new commercial buildings will be east of the MIT Medical building, overlooking Main Street.

King said that the new buildings would not only take up space that could be used to house graduate students — who he said need to live nearby to attend to their wet labs — but would also introduce competition for what little housing there is in Cambridge.

Israel Ruiz SM ’01, executive vice president and treasurer of MIT, countered that MIT houses a greater fraction of its graduate students than many other schools, and that MIT could build more graduate dormitories elsewhere on campus, such as in the northwest corner.

The findings of a study on the housing needs of MIT graduate housing students are expected to be released in 2014.

King further argued, individually and with other members of the faculty newsletter editorial board, that campus planning decisions should be made by faculty members rather than real-estate executives who he said only had their eyes on the bottom line. At the November faculty meeting, King and nine other professors moved to establish a faculty-elected campus planning committee. The motion will be voted on in February this year.

A crucial vote

As the April 15 deadline for the rezoning’s approval loomed, MIT executives scrambled to secure its passage, with President L. Rafael Reif showing up in person at a hearing on April 1 to speak in favor of MIT’s petition.

It was already MIT’s second attempt at the rezoning. The first petition had been drawn up in 2011 during Susan J. Hockfield’s presidency.

City councillors saw the opportunity to milk favors from MIT in exchange for votes.

Following meetings with councillors in late March, MIT committed on April 2 to paying $14 million to a city community benefits fund (up from a previous promise of $10 million) and to contributing to a number of the councillors’ pet causes, some of which had little to do with the rezoning.

Then-Vice Mayor Denise Simmons called the episode a round of “public extortion,” the Cambridge Chronicle reported.

The vote on April 8 drew a crowd to City Hall. During the public comment period, many applauded when Fred P. Salvucci ’61 — a civil engineering lecturer and former Massachusetts secretary of transportation — warned that the rezoning would facilitate gentrification as well-off technologists moved in.

With time, “nobody who voted for you will still be living in this neighborhood,” Salvucci told the councillors.

Being priced out is something Kendall startups have to worry about, too, with Fortune 500 companies vying for the same space. Councillor Leland Cheung MBA ’12 especially pushed for measures to ensure that Kendall never loses its entrepreneurial dynamism.

The final rezoning petition included minimum percentages for both low-income housing and startup space. Startup founders at the meeting praised the petition universally, though the same could not be said for advocates of affordable housing, who nevertheless understood that MIT could not on its own be expected to solve the tougher problems of housing and economic diversity in the city.

The much-anticipated vote was delayed that evening for hours, with two of the councillors tied up at the state legislature and five eleventh-hour amendments proposed.

One amendment, from Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom, threatened to derail the entire project. The amendment, which required new buildings to net zero greenhouse gas emissions annually, appeared to pass 5 to 4 at first.

But then MIT officials signalled to Councillor David Maher from across the chamber, and they conferred in a side room. Maher then seemed to steal about the chamber, whispering to different councillors, including Mayor Henrietta Davis. This happened all while another councillor described his visit to MIT, creating a “diversion,” a member of the anti-development Cambridge Residents Alliance would later allege.

Davis finally announced that the net zero amendment would likely “sink this whole project” and took back her affirmative vote, voiding the amendment.

In the end, MIT’s rezoning petition passed with seven votes for it, one vote against it, and one vote of “present.”

A design team

Since the rezoning, a group of MITIMCo executives and faculty from the School of Architecture have selected a team of six firms to draw up the plans for the future of the easternmost parts of campus. The team is led by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, who have also designed for other universities.

At community forums in December, Mack Scogin said that the team had identified four “critical design issues”: the future of Eastgate, the graduate dormitory; the new eastern gateway to MIT; the placement of public spaces, such as gardens and plazas; and the “connections” within MIT and to MIT’s surroundings.

An exchange between Scogin and former campus planning director O. Robert Simha MCP ’57 at a forum reprised a debate about the role of commercial buildings on campus.

Simha and others had said that MIT’s land south of Vassar Street and Main Street should be reserved for academic purposes — that was what the land was acquired for. Besides, it’s hard to predict how MIT’s research plant will need to expand in the future, he argued.

MITIMCo officials have pointed out that under the rezoning, which permits greater density, commercial buildings can be built while maintaining the amount of academic space available before.

Responding to concerns about a sketch of a skywalk between a commercial building and an academic building, Scogin said that the collaboration between MIT and industry was a boost to both. Indeed, the extent of MIT’s collaborations with industry historically ought to be a point of pride for MIT, he said.

But Simha was not swayed. MIT must “never forget,” he said at the forum, that academic research is open, while commercial activity is “the opposite.”

Detailed designs are expected at the next community forum on Wednesday, Feb. 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in Room E25-111.

1 Comment
Anonymous about 10 years ago

If they want to create an eastern gateway to MIT, they should start by making it possible for the public to walk from Kendall Square to campus, by unlocking the doors to the Medical Building pass-through.