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Cambridge Approves Altered Neuroscience Building

By Beckett W. Sterner


MIT received unanimous approval from the City of Cambridge Planning Board for the building permit of the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) building on Tuesday, after the architects made several revisions to improve public access.

Scheduled to open in 2005, the BCS building will be built to unify all the neuroscience research at MIT under one roof, bringing together the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and two other brain and psychological research institutes.

Previously, the building permit had been held up mainly because the planning board had told MIT that the design had to make room for a train line and a potential bike path along Vassar Street. The board also asked the architects to make the facade more friendly to pedestrian traffic.

Revisions accommodate bike path

MIT representatives first exhibited the planned structure for the new building to the Planning Board on Oct. 1 for a general hearing. During that meeting, the committee members voiced concerns about the building not leaving sufficient space for the train line along Vassar Street, as well as the building’s architectural presence in the area.

At the meeting on Nov. 12, Deborah Poodry, director of capital project development, and Roger Goldstein, an architect from Goody, Clancy and Associates, presented the revised layout for the building design.

“We believe we’ve been responsive and we appreciate everybody’s involvement,” Poodry said.

The current plan is for the train line, run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, to run under an elevated area in the middle of the building.

The proposed bicycle path, which would run directly parallel to the train tracks, is a project under consideration by the City of Cambridge, but it has yet to receive approval. Nonetheless, the planning board told MIT to move the building back 20 feet to allow for the potential route.

Building facade beautified

One other issue the board brought up at both meetings was the impact the building would make on both the neighborhood and the pedestrian’s experience along Main Street.

In response to the problems raised at the earlier meeting, Goldstein pointed out details added to the layout including new plantings, more windows and wider paved areas along the street.

“We’ve made it as open ... as it can be,” he said. Goldstein said he regards the building as “a new front door for MIT on campus.”

In fact, it was the building’s significant presence that led some board members to wonder about MIT’s future plans for expansion in the area. Specifically, because the BCS building will be directly adjacent to MIT-owned Technology Square, the board wondered if MIT had any intentions at somehow bringing Tech Square more into the university.

Every MIT spokesperson asked about the issue said that MIT had no plans to that effect. Arne Abramson, project manager for the new BCS building, confirmed MIT’s plans and said that while they wanted “to add to the street life of Main Street and open up campus,” Tech Square was a “private development” and not part of MIT campus.

Building unifies neuroscience

When the building is completed in 2005, three separate neuroscience groups will move in together under one roof. The Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Institute for Memory and Learning will each have new lab, office and classroom space available.

Director of the McGovern Institute Philip A. Sharp said that the inspiration behind the new building is the “correct and wonderful concept that all neuroscience would be put into one location.”

MIT has made the “the most remarkable commitment to neuroscience that any institute has made in the country,” he said.

Board approves design

Ultimately, the board decided to end its lengthy hearing by voting unanimously to approve the building permit, conditional on further design reviews as plans for the bike path develop.

The resolution stated that the “development is generally pedestrian and bike friendly,” and that “MIT’s contribution to the rebuilding of Vassar Street ... is a benefit to this project.”

The resolution, though, also noted some of the board’s reservations and expressed the hope that “the architects’ intentions will be as successful as he hopes they will be.”