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Council Approves Zoning Plan, Ends 20-Year Controversy

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief

A 20-year controversy came to an end on Monday night when the Cambridge City Council voted 8-0 to rezone about 70 acres in the Cambridgeport area.

The zoning ordinance contains several major provisions, including one under which MIT will donate land to the city for use as a park. MIT will then be able to transfer building rights from this land to another area, where the Institute plans to construct graduate student housing.

The 1.5-acre park will be located at 82 Pacific St., near the corner of Brookline Street. Neighborhood residents wanted a guarantee that some land in the area would remain undeveloped, while MIT was concerned about losing flexibility in planning future construction. The parties reached a compromise when the residents' group, the Cambridgeport Rezoning Group, agreed to let MIT add the building rights for that area on top of those already available in a strip of land north of Erie Street, west of the railroad tracks, and east of the proposed park.

The CRG "would have preferred the park to be further east, but MIT agreed to make the land immediately available," said Geneva Malenfant, a member of the CRG. MIT "will clear the park of cars and other junk covering it now" before presenting the land to the city, Malenfant said.

As MIT uses the transferred rights, it will transfer ownership of the land to Cambridge. In the event that the city government tries to prevent MIT from building near Erie Street, the ordinance specifies that ownership of the entire park area will revert to MIT.

"Our general intention has always been that as we had resources, we would provide housing for graduate students [in the Erie Street area]. It's now just a question of running the numbers and figuring out exactly what we can do under this new ordinance," said Ovadia R. Simha MCP '57, director of planning at MIT.

Simha said there was no timetable for any such construction.

BodySub:Affordable housing

"There were three main goals in this zoning effort [which were] shared by everyone: to provide means for affordable housing, to provide open recreational space, and to protect existing businesses in the area," said Sarah J. Eusden, assistant for government and community relations at the Institute.

The housing goal was met through the creation of an "affordable housing district" on Henry Street and a small section of Sidney Street. The density of housing allowed in this area varies with the percentage of lower-income or subsidized housing that is built. With no affordable housing, construction can reach a maximum density of 0.6 "floor-area ratio," or FAR. The FAR climbs to 1.75 if half of the housing built is affordable, Malenfant said. Multiplying the FAR for a plot of land by the area of the plot gives the total allowable square footage of any development on that land.

Existing businesses in a strip between Brookline and Sidney Streets were granted the right to expand up to 25 percent of their current FAR. In addition, property owners in the region may sell their land for use equal to or lighter than the current use. This means, for example, that a research and development area can not be converted to heavy industry.

Another business decision came in an agreement outside the zoning ordinance itself. Cambridge and MIT agreed to create a research and development manufacturing zone over the next seven years, Eusden said. Other property owners in the area will probably join the agreement, which says that they will actively pursue manufacturing tenants. The city agreed to work on creating advantages such as improved infrastructure and tax breaks for landowners who attract suitable tenants. The area extends to the east of Sidney Street from Erie Street, and down Purrington Street.

"We wanted to provide incentives to create manufacturing jobs, but zoning can't do that. [The agreement] was the most effective means available," Eusden said.

BodySub:Controversy began in 1971

The proposal was adopted after the Cambridge Landowners' Group, which represents MIT and other area landowners, worked out several disagreements with the seven-member CRG. The groups reached agreement around 2:00 Tuesday morning, after negotiations that had run almost continuously since last weekend. The adoption of the ordinance "is absolutely unprecedented," Eusden said. "It's really a wonderful moment, a victory for the entire city."

Malenfant said a city council member found it "remarkable that a community group took the initiative to rezone 80 acres and was able to follow through and reach a resolution" with scarcely any resources.

Members of both groups felt the city council was crucial to the adoption of the proposal. Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves "played an instrumental role in bringing this to resolution," Eusden said. "He brought a very balanced representation from the council," she added.

Malenfant agreed, saying she thought the council was supportive, and that the "city was not on one side or the other."

city not on one side or the other, council was supportive.

MIT purchased the land in 1971 as part of what has become known as the Simplex parcel. Controversy over zoning for the area has continued since then.