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Student Input Increased For Grad Housing Plans

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The March 3 article “Student Input Increased For Grad Housing Plans” said the March 31 deadline for architectural plans for the new graduate dormitory was set by the MIT Corporation. In fact, the Corporation only set the opening date (Sept. 2008) and the budget ($104 million).

By Rosa Cao

Students and administrators are expressing “cautious optimism” after administrators demonstrated an increased openness to working and communicating with a community of “stakeholders” in the project to build a new graduate dormitory in Northwest campus.

While some constraints such as the footprint of the building (its total size and residential density), the compressed timeline that requires signed architectural plans by March 31st, and the total $104 million cost remain hard limits, considerably more space has been opened up for community input through the vehicle of stakeholder subcommittees.

In a closed meeting Wednesday, Chancellor Philip L. Clay charged the committee of stakeholders including students, housemasters and administrators to provide recommendations and advisory input into building plans that had previously been regarded as essentially fixed.

In an interview, Dean for Student Life Larry Benedict said, “it was a productive meeting, forward looking. Yes, everyone is still angry about the past, but the past is the past and now we’re moving on.”

“This was about not having enough student input — the process breakdown as well as the lack of affordable housing,” said former GSC president Barun Singh. “The outcome of the Wednesday meeting was on the positive side of what we expected. They’ve offered an olive branch.”

As part of the administration’s increased commitment to transparency, minutes from the stakeholders and subcommittee meetings, as well as progress reports will be available on a designated webpage, to be updated weekly.

“People can now focus on getting this building built,” said Benedict.

Four Subcommittees to guide input

Subcommittee One, with the tightest schedule, is charged with addressing “types of rooms and amount and disposition of common space” in the new building. It will be chaired by Karen A. Nilsson, director of housing, and GSC president Sylvain Bruni, and will include members of the administration and facilities as well as Ashdown Housemaster Terry P. Orlando and members of the graduate student community. Nilsson hopes to convene the first meeting with project architects Rawn Associates as early as Monday.

The remaining three subcommittees are charged with the more intangible issues. Subcommittee Two, chaired by Steven R. Lerman, housemaster of NW30 (the Warehouse), will deal with issues of graduate community on a longer time scale, such as dining options and the new location of the Thirsty Ear Pub.

While the Northwest Corridor has been promoted as the new locus of graduate community, students have expressed concern about its distance from campus, especially in contrast to Ashdown’s central location.

“You’re isolating all the grad students in one little corner,” said Singh, who is also a former chair of the GSC Housing and Community Affairs Committee, at an HCA meeting Thursday. “How do you open up the Northwest and connect it to the rest of campus?”

The third subcommittee, to be chaired by Orlando, is charged with “preserving the spirit of the Ashdown community,” with events like Coffee Hour and other activities traditionally associated with Ashdown.

Whether the Ashdown name will continue to be associated with a graduate dorm is also in question. “The Corporation names buildings. We don’t. Right now it’s NW35,” said Benedict.

In acknowledgment of the need to keep the community appraised of progress and process, the fourth subcommittee, chaired by Benedict, will be devoted to communication issues.

During the construction of Sidney-Pacific, the GSC held informal discussions as to how to keep communications between the administration and community from breaking down in the future.

Though the past six months have seen a similar lack of communication and resulting dissatisfaction, “what happened in the fall happened,” said Benedict, partly because of personnel turnover. “I’d hope we could get things codified in such a way that we wouldn’t have to repeat such a process again.”

Four resolutions were passed at a GSC general council meeting on Wednesday: a joint resolution with the Undergraduate Association regarding the importance of student input on dormitory projects, student recourse in case of inadequate administrative openness to community input, suggestions for room types and common space allocation in the new building, and a resolution for an extension of the current March 31st deadline for final architectural plans.

“If we push the deadline it will cost more money,” Bruni said. “In our meeting, they were not flexible with the timeline; March 31st is something the executive committee [of the MIT Corporation] voted on.”

“Work expands to take the time available,” said Benedict. “If we had six months, this would take six months. There’s plenty of time to get this done.”

Costs among current concerns

A major student concern discussed at this month’s GSC Housing and Community Affairs meeting was how this increased pressure on the campus housing system would impact rent structures across the system over the next few years.

Asked whether MIT perceived any extra responsibility to students with fewer financial resources, Benedict responded, “that’s a social engineering question; we try to stay away from that as much as possible.”

The Institute will float bonds on the open market to fund the construction of the new building. While “rents will pay it back over time,” Benedict acknowledged, “the building will need support from the Institute for the first few years.”

It may be difficult for Housing to provide that support, given its current deficit and projected increased costs. If the total price of the new building were reduced from $104 million to $80 million, as some student proposals may recommend, it would reduce the pressure on MIT Housing to make up the money through increased rents.

“If they can reduce the cost by some of their ideas, terrific, we look forward to that,” said Benedict. Sidney-Pacific was built under cost.

One of the more severe pressures on the Housing budget comes from rising utility costs. Housing needs “to address systematically the possibility of very large, unexpected increases in utilities” in a way that can’t be in the rents, said Dean of Graduate Students Isaac Colbert.

GSC representative Steven Peters suggested at the HCA meeting that NW35 could be an opportunity for MIT to create an energy efficient building that would be a model for others at comparable cost.

A statement of MIT’s environmental goals on the Environmental Programs Office Web site reads, ”MIT has determined that new projects (including, renovations and new construction) and programs will be designed to meet or exceed the “LEED Silver Plus” [environmental] standard.” Such buildings are expected to reduce energy costs.

Although all proposals are still in preliminary discussion and research stages, other possible suggestions include creating three-to-four person suites sharing a bathroom and kitchen. The Cambridge zoning ordinance for that area requires that each “dwelling unit” contain at least 650 square feet.

Concurring with the results of analyses done by the Housing Office, AHEC president Suddhasattwa Sinha said, “There is a demand for cheap housing, but it turns out there is a demand for expensive housing as well.”

“We’re not advocating for all the rooms to be Ashdown style or Tang style,” said HCA co-chair and stakeholder committee member Andrea Schmidt at the HCA meeting. She said Subcommittee One would probably aim for fewer Ashdown-like rooms than there are in Ashdown right now.

At the weekly Ashdown coffee hour Thursday night, the response to progress on input to the new dorm was subdued.

“It gives me some hope as a backup plan that maybe we won’t lose everything if we’re forced to move out, but I’m still very much in favor of keeping Ashdown,” said current Ashdown resident Sian Kleindienst.

“My heart is for that too,” said Orlando. “You can’t deny that there’s a loss here, but this way graduate students as a whole win.”

A survey, not sponsored by the Ashdown House Executive Committee (AHEC), showed that keeping Ashdown as a graduate dormitory was “important” or “extremely important” to 85% of the 169 Ashdown residents who responded.