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2001 Decision Contingent On New Dorm

By Dana Levine

MIT’s current residence system has been granted a stay of execution. On Wednesday, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 announced that MIT had been forced to push the deadline for moving all freshmen to campus from 2001 to 2002.

An appeal filed last week by a consulting firm located directly adjacent to the site of the new dorm delayed the special permit required to begin construction. The appeal process could take months, and the new undergraduate dormitory will not be completed on time.

“We were determined to build the dorm for 2001, but this just makes it impossible,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams.

While the dorm might be ready in the middle of the 2001-2002 academic year, Williams said that “it’s not practical to move people in mid-year.”

Input led to appeal, delays

Throughout the residence system and dormitory design process, students and faculty were consulted via the Residence System Steering Committee, Strategic Advisory Committee, and dormitory founder’s group.

“We could have built this a lot faster if there weren’t consultation” with the community, Bacow said.

Bacow emphasized that MIT has also made several attempts to consult with the Cambridge community, which led to the relocation of the dorm. The original site for the building, on Vassar Street across from Next House, was changed to a new site across from New House. The move allowed Cambridge Executive Enterprises to sue on grounds of abutter laws.

Bacow said that the suit is based on the idea that “the dining hall is a restaurant and it should have to meet the zoning requirements of any restaurant open to the public.”

Court documents filed by Donovan, however, focus mostly on the dorm’s impact on parking in the Vassar Street corridor.

Administrators are skeptical of the suit’s legitimacy, believing that it lies on frivolous and insubstantial grounds. Bacow described the charges as “a stretch.”

Williams believes that the suit is not “anything of real substance.”

Last week, Bacow said that the Institute had engaged counsel and was prepared to fight the appeal. “This dorm is going to get built,” Bacow said at the time. “We are very confident about our position.”

Williams believes that construction on the new dorm could begin in just a few weeks.

Other residence changes affected

Many of the residence system changes addressed in Bacow’s December report were contingent on the 2001 decision. Associate Dean Kirk D. Kolenbrander added that “the overhaul of Orientation needs to wait until we have freshmen on campus,” but planned changes like dormitory selection and the freshman advising system can go ahead as pilot programs for 2001.

Williams said that the additional time will be of advantage to the new student life programs, allowing for programs to pilot before the mandate.

“We’re doing pilots with residence-based advising. The work of the founder’s group has not been just to provide more beds. They are creating a larger, exciting, and more comprehensive plan for student life,” she said.

Williams noted that this decision was personally frustrating to the members of the founder’s group, as some of them had intended to move into the new dorm. “It’s a disappointment, particularly for the members of the founder’s group. But that is the nature of large projects,” Williams said.

2001 decision contingent on dorm

In a letter dated August 28, 1998, President Charles Vest shocked the MIT community by announcing that the MIT would “house all freshman students in campus residence halls, starting in the fall of 2001, when the new undergraduate dormitory will be ready.”

However, the freshmen on campus decision was based on the new dormitory more than the year 2001.

“The decision hasn’t really changed. Getting things built in this area is a complicated process,” Bacow said.

Cambridge laws allow owners of abutting buildings to appeal an Interim Planning Overlay Permit within 20 days. Cambridge Executive Enterprises filed suit on the last day of this period, halting the process until a settlement can be reached.

He said that the decision to push back freshmen on campus was made by a “caucus of the senior leadership” when “it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to complete the new dorm on schedule.”

Bacow stated that the administrators had considered other possibilities, such as crowding students or moving graduate students out of dorms, “and we didn’t like any of the other options.”

Even though the dorm may be completed only a month behind schedule, this would require the building to remain vacant for the remainder of the year. “Of course this is disappointing. Because of academic constraints, there is no point of opening it in November 2001,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams.

“We’ve been a bit concerned that graduate students may have misread our intentions ... that we were building new graduate housing [such as NW30] not really for grad students but as part of a contingency,” Bacow said.

The Boston Licensing board expressed support for MIT’s initiative, recognizing the Institute’s attempts to improve student life.

“I think that MIT is taking a step in the right direction. We applaud them for trying to help freshmen to acclimate to life in the city,” said Daniel Pokaski, chairman of the BLB.

Pokaski noted that the board recognized MIT’s good faith effort to do the right thing. “The problem that they have had in the past was students not being used to living on their own,” he said.

Rima Arnaout contributed to the reporting of this story.