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Officials suspect arson in Blanche Street house fire

By Niraj S. Desai

Arson is suspected in a Tuesday morning fire that heavily damaged a MIT-owned house at 46-48 Blanche Street.

The house, which is vacant and dilapidated, sits on the proposed site of a 350-room hotel and conference center, part of MIT's University Park project.

Cambridge firefighters arrived on the scene of the blaze at around 2:40 am, a city fire lieutenant said. They observed heavy fire on the second floor of the structure.

The fire, which was soon contained, inflicted substantial damage to the building, especially the second floor and the roof. It also scorched the sides of an adjacent MIT-owned building, which is also vacant, the lieutenant said.

The building had apparently been broken into early Tuesday through a second-floor window, according to the fire official. The blaze began in the right-middle room of the second floor, he added. Inspector Ed Fowler of the city fire department is presently investigating the cause of the fire, with arson being the leading possibility.

Campus Police Chief Anne P. Glavin termed the blaze of "suspicious origin." While she cautioned that nothing is definite at this stage in the investigation, Glavin said that police do have a suspect in the case and that an arrest is possible.

House scheduled

for demolition

The burned house and two others next to it are scheduled for demolition in order to make room for the University Park construction. Two other nearby houses are slated to be moved to different locations.

The houses have been a source of controversy for MIT and its developer, Forest City Enterprises, for nearly two years.

In October 1987, a group of homeless people occupied an adjacent MIT-owned lot for a month, demanding that the Institute give them the land and three of the houses. MIT Campus Police evicted the group in November, arresting 10 in the process.

And MIT has attempted since the spring of 1988 to obtain permits from the Cambridge Rent Control Board to remove the rent-controlled houses from the market, so that three may be demolished and the others moved. In return, it offered to build new housing units and to transfer rent control restrictions to existing units.

The rent control board has approved MIT's request for removal permits, according to Walter L. Milne, assistant to the chairman and president. But the process has been protracted by a series of lawsuits and appeals by tenants and tenants' rights groups. The case is presently before Superior Court.