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Wooing the City

Michael J. Ring

The starkly different portraits of city-Institute and community-Institute relations emerging from planned construction at opposite ends of the MIT campus illustrate perfectly MIT’s choppy relationship with Cambridge and its residents. The groundbreaking for the Stata Center was all smiles, with Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio and community development official Beth Rubenstein praising the Institute for designing a complex considerate of community needs. But on Vassar Street, the Institute prepares to lock horns in land court with Cambridge Executive Enterprises over the construction of the new undergraduate dormitory.

As the Institute continues with its building spree, including the newly-announced McGovern Institute for brain research and the oft-delayed graduate dormitory at University Park, MIT must resolve this dichotomy in order to speed construction, spread goodwill, and earn badly needed political capital with city officials and neighborhood residents. Perhaps most importantly, the administration needs a crash course in Cambridge politics and zoning -- a topic to which it is unfortunately oblivious.

While the Institute twiddled its thumbs through 1998 and into 1999 trying to design a new dormitory so ugly that it would surpass the Middlesex Courthouse as Cambridge’s worst eyesore, the Cambridge City Council passed the Interim Planning Overlay Petition requiring a special review of all development projects over 50,000 square feet. Then, knowing many in Cambridgeport were less than pleased with the Institute’s construction plans, MIT forgot to insure all abutters were notified of a community hearing held under the IPOP statute. The organization that failed to receive an invitation was Cambridge Executive Enterprises. No wonder they exercised their right to appeal MIT’s IPOP approval.

And as groups such as the Media Lab and Sloan School plan to build on what’s left of open land at the eastern tip of the MIT campus, future expansions in that area must necessarily look across Main Street. But that land is off-limits to development now, cordoned off as the Larkin Petition Zone.

The war on development being waged by activists in the City of Cambridge is also a war against MIT. To activists, MIT is just another business seeking to destroy Cambridge’s neighborhoods with more development. The challenge for MIT is the challenge shared by businesses -- to demonstrate to the neighborhoods that the Institute is a neighbor and partner, not an enemy.

Fortunately for the administration, the current leadership on the council is warm to development interests. With the election of pro-development councillors Anthony Galluccio and David Maher to the body’s leadership positions, the tone set by city government should become more receptive to development. MIT needs to demonstrate to the council, and the surrounding communities, that it’s a good neighbor.

The Stata Center is a prime example of cooperation between MIT and the community. City officials have only good things to say about the planning of the Center. A public plaza will invite residents to the Center. Parking will be located underground, saving surface space for more appealing purposes. With the Stata Center, the administration has succeeded at meeting the requests of the community, and it deserves praise for its efforts.

Unfortunately, the administration continues to flounder farther west on Vassar Street, particularly on the issue of parking. The loss of parking spaces, combined with an influx of 350 residents, will impact businesses along Vassar Street, and their concerns deserve to be heard. Given the Institute’s failure to notify Cambridge Executive Enterprises of the IPOP meeting, rebuilding trust with Vassar Street businesses and Cambridgeport residents will be especially difficult.

But there are very good reasons why the area should welcome construction of the new dormitory, and MIT might have more success in this ongoing process if it continues to trumpet these reasons. The dorm creates a bridge between campus and Cambridgeport where currently only a scar exists. Further, the arrival of hundreds of new residents will lower crime around the railroad tracks, which even a cursory glance at the police log reveals is currently a problem, as Vassar and Albany Streets are now barren late at night.

To meet directly the concerns of Cambridge Executive Enterprises, MIT should modify its plans to restore more parking spaces. A better long-term strategy that benefits Vassar Street businesses, Cambridgeport residents, and the Institute alike is to lobby loudly and strenuously for the construction of the Urban Ring light rail line along the Grand Junction right-of-way. The arrival of reliable rail transit services on Vassar Street will drastically reduce the amount of parking needed by businesses, while offering superior transportation options for both residents of Cambridgeport and the new dormitory.

Finally, MIT needs to score some personal points with Galluccio, a rising star in Cambridge politics. A young politician with his eyes clearly set on Beacon Hill, Galluccio will likely be a political force in Cambridge for years to come. It would be beneficial for MIT to make him a friend rather than an enemy.

In an interview with The Tech, Galluccio called on the Institute to take a more active role in Cambridge schools. Specifically, he wants MIT to administer a vocational-technical program for the high school.

MIT is justifiably hesitant to embrace this idea, as the effort and scope exerted in running such a program would be far beyond what MIT could reasonably offer. But the Institute clearly has a role to play in improving the Cambridge schools -- and those schools clearly need improvement. MIT can do something more basic and more universal than a running a focused technical program -- it can help Cambridge improve the teaching of math and science.

The Cambridge public school system is one of the worst systems in the entire state when considering return on the dollar. Cambridge fourth-graders were outscored on the MCAS assessment tests by their counterparts in Everett, Worcester, and Revere -- cities that should perform worse than Cambridge, based on their socioeconomic situations. Their performances are superior to that of Cambridge even though these cities spent between one-half and two-thirds of Cambridge’s $10,814 in the 1997-1998 calendar. As Cambridge searches for ways to reform its educational system, MIT can add valuable input to the educational debate and help all students in the city.

Hopefully, MIT will learn valuable lessons from both the success of the Stata Center and the failure of the new dormitory and improve relations with the city and community accordingly. In Cambridge one never knows where the next downzoning petition or lawsuit is lurking, and MIT needs all the friends it can get as it embarks on a program of expansion.