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City Receptive to Grad Dorm

Cambridge Councillors Question MIT on Parking, Open Space

By Mike Hall

ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

The Cambridge Planning Board reacted favorably yesterday to MIT’s building permit application for a new graduate dormitory, virtually ensuring that the Institute will earn its approval to build the 400-unit dorm. The new dorm will be located on the corner of Sidney and Pacific Streets on what is now a vacant parking lot.

An Interim Planning Overlay Permit (IPOP) is necessary for all buildings over 50,000 square feet in Cambridge. The dorm is scheduled to be built by August 2002.

At the Board’s public meeting last night, the Institute and Cambridge City Councilors discussed four key community concerns: available parking, open space, new retail stores, and the dorm’s appearance.

Parking for the new dorm residents was the central concern of Cambridgeport citizens at the meeting. Following construction, MIT will have 300 available parking spots above and below ground. Senior real estate officer and project director Michael K. Owu ’86 predicted that dorm residents will use 100 spaces, leaving the remaining 200 for residents across campus and possible retail consumer use.

At a community meeting last Thursday, Cambridge City Councillor Henrietta Davis pointed out that the 300 parking spaces might lead to commuter traffic. She said that MIT should make sure that none of the parking spaces is used for commuters. Following last night’s meeting, Davis said that MIT had made strides toward addressing parking concerns.

To alleviate concern about open space, Owu said that the new plan will increase open space within the dorm’s courtyard and will set the main building back twenty feet from the street.

In accord with Cambridge’s desire to increase nighttime usage of the University Park area, the new plan proposes creating a retail area on the dormitory’s ground level, with outdoor cafÉ-style seating along the Sidney Street sidewalk. Owu said that MIT currently has no potential clients for the retail space, but that it was interested in increasing activity in the area.

Board member William Tibbs expressed concern regarding MIT’s plans for retail space, stating that Cambridgeport had “been burned before ... by grand promises of retail in the area.”

To distinguish the dorm from the plain University Park buildings, Owu said that the Institute would change the texture for the dorm’s exterior brick surface and add bay windows and French balconies to the design. Owu added that the height of the dorm’s Sidney Street side would be reduced from six floors to five. The Sidney Street side was of the greatest importance to Cambridgeport residents because it faces residences and green space.

Geneva Malenfant, a Cambridgeport resident and a former resident of Westgate, criticized MIT for taking unnecessarily from Cambridge without giving back to the community. Malenfant encouraged MIT to release several extraneous plots gained from the 1971 Simplex parcel purchase to local non-profit organizations for conversion to low-cost housing.

“There’s no institutional use for these plots,” Malenfant said. “It’s difficult for MIT students to pay for housing, but think of how it is for those without a lot of money.” Malenfant also added that housing costs were a temporary hardship for MIT students, but a lifelong hardship for Cambridgeport’s poor.

Poor communication irks residents

Cambridgeport residents, upset with the dorm’s location in Cambridgeport, criticized MIT for its sudden announcement of building plans earlier this month.

While praising MIT for responding to community concerns, the Board also criticized the Institute for not providing its master plan of future dormitory construction. To meet its goal of housing fifty percent of graduate students in Institute housing, MIT will probably need to build at least one additional dorm within the next few years.

Board member Tibbs admonished Owu and other members of MIT’s application team for not being fully open with the Board.

“It’s critically important that you share your plans, especially if you intend to go further into Cambridgeport,” Tibbs said.

Board chairperson Larissa Brown echoed Tibbs’s criticism, adding that several drawings provided by MIT were “difficult to follow, unclear ... with some incorrect drawings.” As an example, Brown cited one drawing where the arrow pointing north was drawn incorrectly.

Frank Dabek and Naveen Sunkavally contributed to the reporting of this article.