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Come in, Planning

Eric J. Plosky

Here we go again.

The administration last week announced plans to convert Building NW30 into 120-odd units of graduate housing. The reason you have never heard of Building NW30 is because it’s a dilapidated, century-old warehouse on Albany Street, literally on the other side of the tracks. Nonetheless, despite that it’s “in pretty bad shape,” Associate Director of Planning Robert K. Kaynor assures us, “Due to [the building’s] relatively small size, it should be able to be brought on-line quickly.” That’s swell.

But -- wait. This building has been here for 96 years, and it’s “recently,” according to Tech Talk, been used only for storage. It hasn’t gotten any bigger, so why, suddenly, is it so easy to be “brought on-line”? The administration has for three decades been hundreds of housing units short of its goal, which is to have half its graduate student population living on campus. Surely it would have been a better idea to renovate this ideal building years ago, before it really started to crumble.

The truth is, MIT’s Planning Office is asleep at the planning switch in a major way. Lacking a master plan of campus, Planning takes action only in response to media and political crises, on an as-needs basis, never referring to a coherent central document that spells out an overall long-term strategy. Building NW30 “has been part of the long-term housing plan for graduate students for many years,” the Institute propaganda machine quotes Kaynor. Right.

Let’s see that plan. Let’s see the Planning Office dust off an authentic black-and-white copy of MIT’s Master Housing Plan, 1975. Let’s see Kaynor point to the paragraph about NW30, and let’s hear him explain why the Institute sat idly by for twenty-five years, watching bricks drop off the building, instead of solving the problem immediately, undertaking renovations when it would have been much cheaper and easier. (NW30 does have a cameo in MIT’s 1982 Graduate Housing Report; it’s confidently mentioned as a “possibility for renovation,” right along with -- just so the reader has a clear idea of the situation here -- the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, a building as far from ever becoming graduate housing as the BankBoston ATM kiosk across the street.)

I challenge the Planning Office to produce a campus master plan. Sure, Chancellor Larry Bacow now, finally, has a housing strategy that’s readable enough to have been made public. But that’s anomalous. Planning has never made a habit of producing readable documents -- or, for that matter, anything at all. All the decisions have been made behind closed doors, to the detriment of everyone -- students and MIT community members would certainly appreciate the opportunity to have input on planning decisions; planning could without doubt benefit from input given by the people who live and work on the campus canvas.

I want to see a simple, concise document -- one sheet of paper, printed front and back. I’m not interested in a huge report analyzing and justifying everything; I merely want to know what is actually going on. The housing plan, shrunk to bare essentials, will form one elegant section of this document. The plan to expand academic facilities and labs should form the second section. Parking, facilities, utilities, and support structures would be a logical third part. A brief discussion of future developments and the Institute’s planned response to them -- such as the proposed Urban Ring transit line -- could round out the plan.

Creating such a document -- a master plan reference card, if you will -- should not be hard. That is, it’s not hard if a master plan actually exists. If creating the master plan reference card first necessitates the construction of an actual master plan, we could be in for a pretty long wait.

Naturally, I hope my suspicions are unfounded. It is my sincere wish that the Planning Office is in possession of a solid master plan, a document upon which all campus construction projects have been based. If that is the case, however, the question becomes: Why keep everything secret, Planning? Are you afraid of campus reaction? Do you have some sinister designs in store?

Check out the Planning Office’s embarrassing web page (<http://web.mit.edu/-planning/www/>). Read the 1982 housing report -- though terribly out of date, it’s one of the few documents available. Don’t look for a master plan to download. It won’t be ready for quite a while.