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MIT Presents Dorm Plans to Cambridge

By Laura McGrath Moulton

The new undergraduate dormitory received a warm reception from the Cambridge Planning Board at its meeting on Tuesday. The meeting was the first opportunity for MIT to present its latest plans for the dormitory to the board and for the board to solicit feedback from the Cambridge community.

Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 led the presentation, which sought to portray the project as a positive addition to Cambridge as well as to MIT.

Bacow emphasized that the 350-bed facility is not part of a plan to increase the size of MIT’s student body. MIT is planning the dormitory “to bring about a stronger sense of community,” he said. “In order to do that, we should really house all of our freshmen on campus, which we haven’t had the dormitory space to do. Over time, we’ve been becoming more and more of a residential campus, and this is the next step in doing that.”

MIT says dorm has local benefits

In addition to aiding the MIT community, the new dormitory is designed to benefit Cambridge as well, according to both Bacow and Director of Planning O. Robert Simha. Bacow cited the planned “pocket park” and the overall design of the building as examples.

“The Pocket Park makes the connection north [toward Cambridge] and provides an amenity to the community,” said Bacow. “The building has no back or front” but is equally appealing on all sides, said Bacow.

“We’ve tried not to create a wall on Vassar Street. This is a porous building,” Bacow said.

Simha emphasized the building’s context in Cambridge. “The context is a seventeen-year process, in the evolution of Cambridgeport from an industrial zone to an emerging residential area.”

Tim Bade, who represented the architectural firm Stephen Holl and Associates, also emphasized the community-friendly features of the dormitory. “We see this as the first step in the development of the streetscape,” he said.

Bade described the dining hall which will “double as a sidewalk cafe. This is a safe feature, especially at night,” he said.

The presentation, which proceeded at a fast clip at the urging of the board, closed with a discussion of traffic impact.

Community gives tepid response

After the presentation, several community members voiced their opinions. Although most found the modern design aesthetically displeasing, their comments were generally positive.

James Williamson, a candidate for Cambridge City Council, supported the idea of a dormitory but suggested that the Vassar Street building be used to house graduate students rather than undergraduates.

“MIT students are very concerned about the decision to house all freshmen on campus by 2001,” a move which could, said Williamson, cause 10-15 percent of FSILGs to close.

Citing conversations with another City Council candidate Erik Snowberg ’99 and other unnamed students, Williamson said that such a decline in FSILGs could “force about 300 students to look for housing elsewhere in Cambridge,” thus nullifying the positive effects of the new dormitory.

Traffic studies applauded

MIT’s traffic analysis garnered much praise. Cambridge resident Steve Keiser praised the “innovative computer model” used by MIT and said it is “newer, better, and different” than the models used by other organizations. Another resident Scott Horowitz commended MIT for performing the traffic analysis process “even for a dormitory,” contrasting MIT’s cooperation with Harvard’s recent claims that it should be exempt from filing traffic impact reports for dormitory projects.

Vincent Dixon, another candidate for Cambridge City Council, also supports the project. “It’s clear MIT is respecting neighborhoods, and we should give them credit for that,” he said, noting that every student housed on campus reduces competition in the tight Cambridge housing market. However, “there really should be a council of some sort to work with MIT to develop long term plans” which affect Cambridge, Dixon said.

Horowitz expressed a similar sentiment, and also said, “I hope that the aluminum siding on this building is treated in such a way that it will not become an eyesore” when viewed from Cambridgeport at sunset.

The Planning Board will now review the information gathered at the meeting as well as further written submissions from the community, and will discuss the dormitory again perhaps as soon as their November 9 meeting.