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Sheraton construction to begin soon

By Joanna E. Stone

The seemingly never-ending saga of the fate of University Park and the Blanche Street houses has finally reached a seemingly happily-ever-after conclusion. After a decade of demonstrations, hearings and general dispute, the Blanche Street houses have finally been moved to their new location on Franklin Street and construction of a 300-room Sheraton Suite Hotel on that site is scheduled to begin this summer.

For several years now, the two MIT-owned three-story houses remaining on Blanche Street -- occupied by a total of four people -- have been the only thing standing in the way of MIT's completing its final piece of the plan for University Park: the construction of the 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 Middlesex County Superior Court last 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.

MIT eventually won the suit, and several more hearings later, the University Park project can finally proceed to completion.

"The proceedings have run their course and it's now time for the buildings to be moved," said Terry Morris, director of the Cambridge Rent Control Board.

Bob DiIorio, associate director of the MIT News Office, noted MIT's enthusiasm over the fact that University Park can finally move towards completion. "We're very pleased that the project is moving forward and that it's one step closer to being a reality," DiIorio said. He also noted that this outcome seems to be a positive one for all the parties involved.

Even tenant Peter Valentine expressed his approval of the project for the first time in an interview with the Boston Globe.

"What is important after all these years is that there has been a relatively harmonious conclusion. . . . I am happy with the decisions that have been made," Valentine said.

In the past Valentine had been a staunch opponent of the development project, and had come to represent the intangible hardship that would be suffered by Blanche Street residents from the removal of their homes from their present site.

In a board hearing this past fall, Valentine testified 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.

His testimony was accompanied by unadmitted 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 said that he had to remain at his current residence, in its current location, in order to continue his research.

A decade of controversy

Valentine has consistently been a very visible part of the very visible controversy surrounding MIT's planned development of University Park. The controversy 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.

"University Park development is a definite improvement over what was there before," said Catherine Woodbury, Cambridge City Project Planner, who helped oversee the development of the University Park land.

"Prior to all of this, the character of that part of Cambridgeport was older industrial," she noted. "There used to be chemical, bigger type factory buildings."

Before MIT bought the land, it had been the site of the Simplex Wire and Cable Co. factory and its out buildings.

"I think this fits in much better with the residential surrounding neighborhood," Woodbury said.

Woodbury speculated that University Park's days in court are probably over. However, she contended, "It's not always possible to identify what might become a controversial issue in the future."