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RCB Ruling Clears Way for U. Park: 8: 8

By Joanna Stone
Arts Editor
____After a decade of demonstrations, hearings and general dispute, the fate of University Park and the Blanche Street houses finally reached a conclusion last spring when the houses were moved to their new location on Franklin Street in Cambridge. The relocation of the houses was the last obstacle on the road to construction of a 300-room Sheraton Suite Hotel on that site and the completion of the University Park project.

For several years, the two MIT-owned three-story houses remaining on Blanche Street -- occupied by a total of four people -- had been the only thing standing in the way of MIT's completion 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 1,000 feet away from their previous location had been approved by the Cambridge Rent Control Board in 1989 and was 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 brought in front of the Cambridge Rent Control Board again. 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 last January, 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.

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." 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 in 1990, 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 had said that he had to remain at his current residence, in its current location on Blanche Street, in order to continue his research.

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

The buildings entered 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."

"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."