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Debate Over New Dorm...s Future Continues

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The March 17 article “Debate Over New Dorm’s Future Continues” gave an incomplete title for Karen Nilsson. She is Associate Dean and Director of Housing, not Director of Housing.

By Rosa Cao
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

The cautious optimism expressed by students and administrators last week about plans for a new graduate dormitory has degenerated into frustration and confusion after senior administrators first threatened to cancel the project, substantially shortened the timeline and scope for community input, then reversed themselves and reinstated the original timeline, all over the space of three days.

Addressing the NW35 space planning subcommittee on Wednesday, Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert conveyed a directive from senior decision makers that the project could be cancelled if the stakeholders could not agree on apartment types and floor plans by a new deadline of March 17, two weeks earlier than the original deadline of March 31.

Furthermore, the directive from President Susan Hockfield, Executive Vice President Sherwin Greenblatt, and Chancellor Phillip L. Clay stated that several key aspects of the new dormitory, including the allocation of common space and the types of rooms possible, would no longer be open to discussion, effectively closing the door on input from students and administrators. For example, each apartment will now be required to contain both a living room and a kitchen, amenities which will substantially raise the minimum rent possible in the new building.

But in an abrupt turnaround late yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Clay sent stakeholders an e-mail re-affirming “the March 31st deadline to complete critical discussions regarding room configuration, common space, and other matters critical to moving the project forward,” adding in a clarification that no agreement on anything would be due by any date before March 31. It is unclear to what extent community input on these aspects will be accepted.

At an emotionally charged town meeting at Ashdown Thursday evening, residents and stakeholders expressed outrage at the administration’s lack of consistency and decision to limit input.

Housemaster Terry P. Orlando said, “there was a lot of progress that was being made ... but now I feel like everything we’ve been trying to do has been a charade of meetings for the administration to do nothing but build the building that they want to build, with no student input, and to make sure that the rents as high as they can be.” He continued, “It’s just not right and it’s just not fair, and not only that, if they don’t build the building, then they want to blame it on the students for not cooperating.”

At a Graduate Student Council Housing and Community Affairs meeting intended to gauge student opinion earlier on Thursday, stakeholders and subcommittee members presented the changed situation. Former GSC President Barun Singh said, “it’s very clearly an ultimatum: either you accept these conditions, or you don’t get the dorm at all.”

Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict said the bottom line was that “we don’t want to build a building that people don’t want, that people say they won’t live in.” He added that everyone is frustrated with the confusing situation and the messy process.

In a financial model that was an updated and rescaled version of the 2004 feasibility report on the new graduate dormitory plan, student stakeholders showed projections that put the average rent in the new dormitory at about $1,200/month at opening with over 3 percent increases every year for the next 10 years to cover the estimated total cost of the building.

In an e-mail to the HCA community, HCA Co-Chair Andrea Schmidt G wrote, “Although all of us want to see an increase in the amount of on-campus housing available to graduate students, we also do not want to see a poorly designed building become a financial drain to the system.”

Singh added at the meeting, “it’s not only sub-optimal, and it doesn’t address any of our concerns [about rent and common space], but it will result in losses for MIT in the long run.”

Director of Housing Karen Nilsson said that in fact student concerns about diversity in rent options had been addressed by the creation of three-bedroom apartments in the new building that could cost about 15 percent less than the efficiencies.

“We are trying to build a building that meets the financial constraints, balanced with the needs to run the building, balanced with the programming needs of the residents, balanced with the need to have a variety and diversity of rent options,” said Benedict. “We’re trying to put all those together and they are not compatible.

If the new dormitory is not built, “I assume that Ashdown would stay, but I’m not going to speculate on what will happen,” said Nilsson.

At the HCA meeting, students pointed out that while the graduate community could be receiving a $104 million building, they would also be giving up Ashdown, which is assessed at $100 million, but “obviously worth more to residents,” said Ashdown GSC Representative Harish Mukundan G.

Minutes and updates on the stakeholder and subcommittee meetings can be found at http://web.mit.edu/dsl/NW35/news.htm.