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Differing views on Koch’s Main Street

One of the side issues in the city’s planning process is the Main Street streetscape at the new Koch Institute, Building 76.

All participants in the planning process agree — from MIT to the neighborhood to the board to the public — that ground-floor retail and other street-level activity are essential to the success of the square.

MIT’s Koch Institute is an anomaly in this. Between Ames and Vassar streets, Koch occupies the full south side of the block. The north side of the block is occupied by the Whitehead Institute and the Broad Institute, which are similarly devoid of active ground-floor uses. City Councillor Ken Reeves has called the block “a dead zone.”

These concerns are heightened as new development takes place to the west of Koch, at 610 Main Street. The new Pfizer building there will have ground-floor retail, but ability to connect to the rest of Kendall’s retail may be limited by Koch, Whitehead, and the Broad.

MIT has been repeatedly and formally asked how it plans to address this issue, but the Institute has not responded.

The planning board has regularly expressed how Koch should not be viewed as a model for other development in the city.

At the Aug. 7 planning board meeting, Vice Chair Thomas Anninger asked MITIMCo’s Steven C. Marsh directly: “What ideas do you have about animating a building that as you know has disappointed a lot of people along that stretch?”

Marsh said he had “heard that out there” but didn’t think he had heard it formally. “We’ll put that on the radar screen for consideration. I get the point,” he said.

The planning board met again, with Kendall on the agenda, on Aug. 21, but MIT representatives could not make it.

But then the board met on Sept. 4, with 15 representatives from MIT present and MIT squarely on the agenda. And MIT didn’t mention Koch.

At the end of the meeting, Anninger asked again: “I don’t want to belabor the point tonight, but you know its been raised before. … It’s an open space that does not meet the standard that you talked about. It’s a street line that doesn’t meet the standard that you talked about. And somehow we have to find a way to get there. And so we need to add that to the list of things to address.”

Marsh did not respond.

Asked after the meeting, Marsh said: “I promised to take it back; I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet.”

In defense of the space

The Koch Institute has a public gallery, open 8 a.m. — 6 p.m. weekdays, with artwork and educational some educational exhibits with an audio track accessible via smartphone.

The gallery is curated by Alex Fiorentino, the public outreach coordinator. In an interview with Firorentino and Robert G. Urban, executive director of Koch, in July, both expressed pride in the gallery.

It is a “peaceful oasis,” said Sarah E. Gallop, MIT’s community government liason. Gallop professes to be a fan of the block.

In the gallery, artwork rotates and features imagery from biological research around the Institute. Fiorentino said the gallery regularly does outreach to the public and hosts school group tours. Koch’s cafe is also open to the public, Urban said.

One criticism of the gallery has been the unwelcoming “Private property / No trespassing” signs on the entrances to the buildings. Urban said that new signage for the entrances is in development, and it will highlight the gallery and its public access.

John A. Hawkinson