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Forest City Seeking Variance for Labs Near Sidney-Pacific

By Nathan Collins


Controversy over a proposed construction project near the Sidney-Pacific graduate residence remains unresolved as the Cambridge Planning Board approaches a decision on the future of 100 Landsdowne Street.

100 Landsdowne was previously planned as a residential building. Forest City Enterprises, which manages the University Park area, requested an amendment last November to allow research space instead of apartments. The plot is located adjacent to Sidney-Pacific.

Jeffrey C. Roberts G, Sidney-Pacific outreach chair, said that developing 100 Landsdowne for biotechnology or other research would hurt the quality of life for graduate students living in the area.

“If you want to try to foster some sense of community” and encourage interaction between MIT and non-MIT residents, more housing would be “better in the long term,” he said.

Roberts said that he would like to see more shops and foot traffic in the evening, both to foster community and for safety.

“I think University Park provides a pretty good quality of life” independent of what 100 Landsdowne becomes, said Peter B. Calkins, Forest City’s senior vice president for development and planning.

“University Park as a whole is a 24-hour environment,” Calkins said. Biotechnology firms at University Park operate well into the evening and there is a significant security presence, he said.

Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert said he was “not willing to say there will be a negative impact.” But, he said, “we have to think about what more we can do” to improve the quality of life throughout the northwest part of campus.

MIT Executive Vice President John R. Curry said the Cambridgeport a “needs a lot,” including better lighting and amenities.

“We really have nothing concrete right now,” Curry said. Curry plans to work with members of the architecture and urban planning programs on how to develop the area intelligently.

The debate over 100 Landsdowne, however, has become largely a legal issue.

In 1999, after Cambridge approved an initial master plan, and in the midst of a review of planning policies, Cambridge issued an interim planning overlay permit, or IPOP, to Forest City.

The Planning Board is trying to determine whether the IPOP was granted because 100 Landsdowne was planned as a residential building, said Liza Paden, a Planning Board staff member.

At the time of the IPOP, 100 Landsdowne “was planned as a luxury high-rise residential tower,” according to Nov. 5 letter from Calkins to Thomas Anninger, the chair of the Cambridge Planning Board.

The letter says that University Park has met its requirements for 150 units of affordable housing, as well as other requirements, and that a research facility would fit in better with existing buildings.

He further argued that the IPOP authorized, but did not require, residential development, and that research space was consistent with existing zoning. He asked that 100 Landsdowne be removed from the permit.

“There was a short discussion” about the implications of the request at the meeting, Paden said, but no final decision was made because one member of the Board could not be present. Roberts said a straw poll suggested that, between the absent member and one undecided member, the vote could go in favor of Forest City’s request.

“It seems like the Planning Board is still split,” Roberts said.

“People who are pushing for the amendment steered it away from what’s best for the area,” Roberts said. “That’s disappointing to me.”

Forest City has indicated it will build housing at 23 Sidney Street, across from the University Park Hotel. Forest City originally planned to develop retail space there. “Given the economy,” retail space would not sell well, so a residential building with a first-floor retail component will go there instead, Calkins said.

In a separate Nov. 5 letter to the Planning Board, also regarding 100 Landsdowne, Calkins cited 23 Sidney Street as evidence of Forest City’s commitment to residential development at University Park.

The Planning Board will next consider Forest City’s request when the full board will be able to meet, on March 4.