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Cambridge Unfazed by MIT’s Building Boom

By Sanjay Basu


Cambridge City Councilors say that recent MIT building proposals have left Cambridge residents curiously unfazed even as they protest other development plans across the city.

The change in relations between Cambridge and its two Universities, traditionally characterized as stressed and unfriendly, was heralded by Assistant Cambridge City Manager Beth Rubenstein herself, when, in a speech given at the Stata Center’s groundbreaking, she told audience members that the building symbolized a new turn to “civic cooperation.”

Indeed, a strange polarity exists between citizens’ reactions to the recent MIT building boom and responses to other development in the area. MIT’s spree has received minimal opposition in comparison to onslaught faced by developers planning buildings in Kendall Square and Harvard.

The recent developments add to a backdrop of intense debate in a city that houses two wealthy universities that border neighborhoods struggling with issues of affordable housing, homelessness, and gentrification.

City accepts new dorm, Stata Center

Make no mistake: Cambridge residents aren’t celebrating MIT’s plans and they haven’t been apathetic. Cambridgeport residents attended a community meeting with MIT development officials in late January to express concerns about the new undergraduate dormitory on Vassar Street.

But the questions raised focused on the height and appearance of the building. The questions, said Cambridge City Councilor Kathleen Born, “were not spoken with anger. These people just want to know what they’ll be looking at when they stare out the window.”

Fellow Councilor Henrietta Davis said that the stalling of the dorm by an injunction from Cambridge Executive Enterprises “was not really a concern for residents. The business thinks it’ll cause traffic problems, but a dorm doesn’t really do that, and Cambridge residents know it.”

The “real issue,” she said, “was that MIT wouldn’t make a line of big buildings and create a wall between neighborhood and the east.” And meetings on the dorm were ”rather friendly, in comparison to other discussions” on development in Cambridge, said Born.

Larkin halts development

MIT presented its new dorm development plans in January to a generally positive reception. At the same time, the City Council passed an 18-month moratorium on developments of over 20,000 square feet in east Cambridge including the Kendall Square area near campus.

The Larkin Petition, as the measure was called, affects an area that has become a haven for biotech firms like Amgen and Biogen. Councilor Davis calls the area “a complete failure ... nothing happens there at night. It’s dead. That was an error in planning. I don’t think anybody wants to repeat that.”

The moratorium, according to Sarah E. Gallop, Co-Director of the Office of Government and Community Relations, “doesn’t have an immediate impact on MIT ... but any kind of moratorium means that the value of our property in that area reduces. So, for property value reasons, we protested.”

With the failure of that protest and the passage of the petition, Cambridge Councilors began reevaluating development in Kendall Square.

Harvard’s Knafel Center contested

Councilors are also considering widespread dissatisfaction with Harvard’s proposed Knafel Center for Government and International Studies, which will replace both the Information Services Building and Coolidge Hall. The enormous center will include an underground tunnel beneath Cambridge Street.

Prolonged hearings on the building, which is now two years in the planning, have so far failed. The Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Commission (MCNDC), which oversees the hearings, has yet to approve the plan. Even if the commission passes the proposal, other city boards will need to review it and could block the development altogether.

Opposition to Harvard’s Knafel Center is based on social as well as practical concerns. A rally early last month, headlined by speeches from Cambridge Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio and City Council members Jim Braude and Marjorie C. Decker, indicated that many oppose the Knafel Center because of Harvard’s failure to pass a living wage of $10 per hour for all University employees.

The University’s enormous “living wage campaign” attracted a crowd of 200 protesters. Braude told the crowd, “If Harvard wants to build a new building and comes to the City Council, all nine of us will say, ‘Implement a living wage, and we’ll talk.’” The Council later passed a resolution calling for Harvard to implement the $10 per hour wage.

Location aids MIT efforts

Why has MIT continued its boom relatively unscathed by Cambridge residents as Kendall developers and Harvard University face widespread opposition?

The key, according to Gallop, is “location, location, location”.

“Stata is surrounded by MIT buildings and businesses. No one is there to oppose it ... and the dorm is on our side of the railroad tracks. The concerns from residents are mainly about appearance, which is easy to fix.”

The Kendall Square development, however, “is a huge traffic and congestion concern,” said Davis. “That’s also the reason people are opposing the Harvard building.”

The lack of such a controversy at MIT does not necessarily indicate a permanently friendly or trusting relationship between Cambridge and the Institute, however.

Councilors have been outspoken in their opposition to further development plans similar to University Park, an MIT-implemented $45 million development project that includes University Park Hotel and several housing units near Star Market.

“I’m worried about congested buildings like that,” said Davis. “Speaking from the community, I think it would never be safe to keep our guard down. The resources of the universities are enormous compared to the city. We have to be sure that we keep on our radar screen how the universities plan to develop.”

Born agreed. “There is a new leadership in the real estate office at MIT,” she said. “I think they should be public with their vision. I think that there’s a perception in the general public always believes that Harvard and MIT have secret plans.” Related stories: