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Investing in Community

Guest Column Jeff Roberts

Today, many people will be celebrating MIT’s new building initiative. But amidst the celebration, students, faculty, administrators and alumni should reflect on what the initiative has produced. Since I have been involved in two of MIT’s major building projects, as a member of the Founders Group for Simmons Hall and as a resident of Sidney-Pacific, I have been thinking about these additions to the residential campus.

In 1998, the commitment was made to house all freshmen on campus, necessitating the construction of a 350-bed dormitory. This decision was closely preceded by the release of the report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which recommended that MIT put more resources into developing student life and campus community.

MIT then commissioned a group of planners to create an innovative space program for the residence. Later it selected an architect who would be expected to create a “signature” piece for the campus. Finally, it chartered a Founders Group comprised of students, faculty and staff that would be responsible for developing community and culture in this new building, following the recommendations of the Task Force.

From the beginning, the project was plagued by problems. MIT needed the dorm to be finished on time, but the design would involve unconventional, complicated construction methods. Conflicts with city government and abutters compounded the time problem. Everyone is aware of the cost issues.

Whenever a problem arose, it seemed that the Founders Group was further marginalized. Initially, conflicts between the goals of the Founders Group and the artistic vision of the architect were addressed through negotiation. But the Founders Group was never allowed to discuss the building’s cost, and could not effectively participate in setting priorities. As the construction timetable became tighter, it became impractical to allow further debate. By the end, the Founders Group was having very little say in the design. Looking at the building now, one can see that aesthetics emerged as the project’s strongest priority.

While Simmons Hall is looking particularly nice today, one should notice some things. Most community spaces are incomplete. Faulty stair rails have denied students access to their lounges, which are noisy, lack sufficient furniture, or smell awful. Lounge lights cannot be turned off, while kitchens contain no overhead lighting at all. The “modular” furniture is too heavy to be moved, and some is beginning to break.

The problems faced by the Simmons community continue. There is no usable outdoor space for events. Failed negotiations with the MIT Safety Office and the Cambridge Fire Department have resulted in gorgeous roof terraces that are unusable to students.

The improvements to Vassar Street that would link Simmons to the main campus have been indefinitely delayed due to lack of funding. A design solution that would allow Simmons residents to cross Briggs Field has been ignored. The dorm created to strengthen the MIT community is largely isolated from it.

On the other side of the tracks is the 750-bed graduate residence at Sidney and Pacific. This project was intended, first and foremost, to be finished on time and on budget. For MIT, the community and aesthetic goals seemed secondary to the practical ones.

The project team included smart planners, a skilled architectural firm, and graduate students dedicated to the development of a community. The most important feature of this process is that the team worked together. Students articulated their needs to the designers down to the finest detail. They prioritized where resources were limited. They effectively dealt with neighborhood opposition. This team took such ownership of the project that when the administration tried to interfere with the design to suit its own goals, students fought them into backing down.

In the end, the building was completed ahead of time and under budget. The reaction of new residents and visitors to the building, including neighborhood residents, has been universally positive. Moreover, it has already established itself as a center of graduate student life. Sidney-Pacific has more community facilities than any other graduate dorm, and students have been using them to their full potential. They hosted an opening celebration that ranks among the best campus-wide events I have seen. It seems that Sidney-Pacific has achieved many of the things Simmons was meant to do, but at lower cost.

I don’t intend to say that Simmons Hall is patently bad. On the contrary, students seem to like it very much. After all, it began with a great space program, and the Founders Group and architect brought this program to a largely satisfactory result. The donation from Dick Simmons, demonstrating alumni support for student life, is another positive. Also, both Simmons Hall and Sidney-Pacific have the most important element for building community: a group of enthusiastic residents who “own” the dorm. We must be careful, especially with the hype surrounding Simmons, that the administration does not try to take control away from the residents. Altogether, I am very proud to be a SPy, as I am proud to call myself a Simmons Hall Alum.

This is a time to celebrate our achievements, but also a time to think critically about them. When MIT makes investments in its community, we must wonder whether those investments have a real impact on student life. Simmons Hall may be the most expensive dorm, per resident, ever built, and there may be value in bringing “signature” architecture to campus. But does this value really benefit student life? While many of the problems with Simmons Hall will be corrected in time, will we be able to justify the present frustration, not to mention the resources that could have been spent on other student life initiatives? And while it is impossible to compare Simmons and Sidney-Pacific as residences, can we compare the relative success of the processes used to develop them?

These questions should help us think about how MIT should invest in the future. The MIT campus, particularly the residential campus, is not finished expanding. Students and faculty will need more places to live, eat, gather, perform, and respire. They will also need safe and effective pathways from place to place. Let’s try to keep our priorities straight.

Jeff Roberts is a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies And Planning.