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MIT wins RCB decision

By Joanna E. Stone

Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Wendie I. Gershengorn has ruled in favor of MIT in its suit against the Cambridge Rent Control Board, clearing the way for construction at University Park, an MIT-owned commercial development.

In the decision, handed down March 1, Gershengorn granted MIT's request for an "injunction ordering the Cambridge Rent Control Board to issue the certificates of eviction [removal permits for the relocation of the Blanche Street houses] in accordance with the board's June 28, 1989, ruling."

Currently, there are two MIT-owned three-story houses remaining on Blanche Street. 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 construction 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 in 1989, and upheld in court by Gershengorn this past summer. MIT had agreed to pay for temporary housing for the four tenants and to provide care for any animals they own.

However, due to the July 1990 parking freeze in Cambridge, the case was again brought in front of the Cambridge Rent Control Board this past fall. The tenants claimed that the freeze changed University Park's situation enough to permit the board to declare the removal permits null and void.

At a hearing Jan. 23 the board found that circumstances had not changed, but delayed the issuance of certificates of eviction "until MIT presents evidence to the [rent control board's] executive director that it has secured financing of the development proposed for the subject sites."

MIT decided to sue the rent control board for what they saw as a violation of the original agreement. "The board made an agreement, we've lived up to our side of it, we've provided all that they requested and now they're asking for more," said Scott Lewis, an attorney for Palmer and Dodge, the law firm representing MIT in the case.

In addition to paying for interim housing for the tenants, MIT agreed to provide the city with

12 additional rent control units.

A building was constructed on Brookline Street, on the perimeter of University Park, for the purpose of providing six rent controlled units. Also, six units from other MIT-owned housing were converted to rent control units.

All 12 units are now occupied by low-income tenants, who were taken from waiting lists for Cambridge public housing, according to Lewis. In addition, MIT has supplied tenants with a list of temporary relocation provisions, including several hotels to choose from, Lewis said.

"There are no cases that I'm aware of in which the Cambridge Rent Control Board extracted as many housing benefits" as they have from the development of University Park, Lewis said. He added that MIT should not have to provide more than all that it already has provided.

The attorney for the rent control board, Patricia A. Cantor, asserted at the Superior Court hearing that the board was not changing its original decision, only requesting a "mere detail" from MIT before granting the certificates.

According to Lewis, the problem with MIT providing the rent control board with this "mere detail" -- evidence of financial backing for University Park -- is that the financial commitment of the Sheraton, the hotel planned for the site, is still pending. Lewis noted at the hearing that the Sheraton would like further assurances that the land will be vacated before it commits itself financially.

Cantor had argued that the delay incurred by the request

for evidence would pose no real harm to MIT. Gershengorn interjected, "the harm to MIT is the falling through of the project. The people MIT is dealing with want security."

In her decision, Gershengorn wrote: "The potential harm to MIT would be irreparable as would the harm to the public. Both the hotel and the entire University Park development promise to revitalize the area, creating hundreds of new jobs and generating significant tax revenues. Such revitalization is clearly in the best interest of the public."

Gershengorn also noted that the hardship the tenants will suffer is outweighed by the public benefit provided by the development. The judge described the harm to the tenants as "somewhat ameliorated, since MIT has agreed to pay for all moving and storage expenses."

Tenants' hardship includes

disruption of karma

At last month's hearing, Cantor had insisted the board's additional request was within its authority. "In the context of Valentine, we defer it to the board's discretion," she said.

Cantor was referring to Peter Valentine, a resident of Blanche Street for over 20 years. Valentine has been called on in the past to represent the intangible hardship that will be suffered by tenants due to relocation.

In a board hearing this fall, 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 might jeopardize this karma.

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 he had found a way to turn gray hair back to its original color without the use of chemicals, "in other words, to reverse the aging process."

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 its current location, in order to continue his research.

In the decision that prompted MIT's suit, the board said, "Given the severe disruptive effects of relocation, the board was genuinely concerned that that not occur, unless and until the development was going to materialize."

A decade of controversy

The controversy surrounding MIT's planned development of University Park began about a decade ago, when three three-story buildings located on Blanche Street, 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.

Although MIT is pleased with the outcome of this, the latest chapter of the Blanche Street controversy, there is no guarantee that the saga is over.

In her decision, Gershengorn referred to the case as a "seemingly endless maze of litigation".

Ronald P. Suduiko, assistant to the president for government and community relations, admits that he is not certain when the proceedings will end.

"Our intent is to deal with

the future needs of the tenants. Given that framework, I'm very hopeful that things will proceed in a fairly orderly fashion," Suduiko said. Although he noted that "every decision can be appealed," Suduiko expressed doubt that this decision would be.