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RCB hears tenant appeal

By Joanna Stone

Yet another chapter has unfolded in the controversial and seemingly never-ending saga of the fate of the University Park development and the Blanche St. houses.

This time the issue is parking. Namely, in light of the recent Cambridge parking freeze, will MIT be able to secure the necessary parking permits for its planned development?

Currently, there are two MIT-owned three-decker houses remaining on Blanche St. These two buildings -- occupied by a total of four people -- are perhaps the only thing standing in the way of MIT's completing its final piece of the plan for University Park: the building of a hotel and convention center in the so-called Simplex parcel in Cambridgeport.

The relocation of the houses to a site 1000 feet away from their present location had been approved by the Cambridge Rent Control Board last year, and upheld in court this past summer. MIT had agreed to pay for temporary housing for the four tenants and to provide care for any animals they own.

Yet, due to recent "changes in circumstances," the case was again brought before the board last Friday. The hearing officer, Vivian Bendix, agreed to hear the change in circumstances surrounding the parking freeze in Cambridge.

There will only be 500 new parking permits issued in Cambridge in the future, said Debra McMannis, co-chair of Cambridge Citizens for a Livable Neighborhood. MIT is only one of many developers competing for those permits.

It has been argued that the parking crunch might make the planned building of a hotel on the Blanche St. property impossible. Thus, the tenants argued, why relocate them when the building would lie vacant for several years?

Strong words and emotions

In the past this controversy has been marked by strong words and emotions, and this hearing was no different.

Before the hearing officially began, Scott P. Lewis, an attorney representing MIT, objected to the hearing, saying the possible limitations the parking freeze may impose were not relevant.

"This hearing is a sham, it's frivolous, dilatory, and should be stopped immediately," said Lewis at the hearing's onset.

However, John Mason, a lawyer arguing for the tenants, claimed that the hearing could not be more relevant. He said that when the permits were granted to allow MIT to relocate the houses on Blanche St., it was with the understanding that University Park would be able to be completed.

"It was never even considered that these tenants be forced to undergo the hardship of relocation so that the land could remain vacant for an unforeseeable number of years," said Mason.

The first witness called by Mason was meant to show that there was significant chance that MIT would not get the parking permits it required.

Lewis posed a standing objection of irrelevance, while further objecting to Mason's alleged lack of expertise regarding Cambridge parking law.

There was only one other witness called, who without doubt represented the most memorable aspect of the hearing.

Peter Valentine, a resident of Blanche St. for over 20 years, was called to the stand to represent the intangible hardship that will be suffered by tenants due to a relocation that may no longer have a purpose.

Valentine began his testimony by stating that he could not be moved from his home because he was currently in karma with his energy fields and relocation may jeopardize this karma.

Although Lewis had objected to all presentations put forth by the other side up until this point, he allowed Valentine to present a one page speech he had prepared as additional testimony.

This speech was accompanied by unsubmitted evidence, including a bag of gray hair which Valentine claimed had been his own and a display of other hairs which he said showed that he had found a way to turn grey hair back to its natural color without the use of chemicals. "In other words, to reverse the aging process," he said.

Valentine claimed that if research like his were occurring at MIT, all efforts would be made to accommodate the researcher. He believes that he must remain at his current residence in order to continue his research.

He also said that the Rent Control Board should be familiar with his important powers. Not long ago, there was a Cambridge outdoor event scheduled for a day on which thunderstorms had been predicted. Valentine said that city officials hired him to prevent the thunderstorms, and sure enough it was beautifully sunny that day.

Lewis called no witnesses and merely reiterated in his closing argument that this was yet another trial that MIT should not have been forced to endure.

Bendix, the hearing officer, will now write a recommendation to the board, which will decide upon the case.

A decade of controversy

The controversy surrounding MIT's planned development of University Park began about a decade ago, when three three-decker buildings located on Blanche St., owned by MIT, were left vacant and uninhabitable.

The buildings gained the public spotlight in 1988 when protesters constructed a "Tent City" and asked MIT to allow them to renovate the houses so that the homeless could live in them.

Some people claimed that MIT had purposely allowed these houses to deteriorate in order to remove them from the rental market and vacate the land, in an attempt to expedite the development of University Park.

MIT has since promised to help ameliorate the deficiency of low and moderate-income and rent-controlled housing in Cambridge. The Institute plans to ultimately provide 18 rent-controlled units, six more than before the redevelopment, and has also set aside 150 of its 400 new housing units for low- and moderate-income people.

The Rent Control Board approved of MIT's plan to replace existing rent-controlled units lost to the redevelopment. Thus, the three buildings have since been demolished, and the fate of two nearby three-decker houses has come under fire.