A faculty task force has recommended to the Provost that MIT proceed with its east campus (Kendall Square) rezoning proposal, but to consider the land as “an extremely precious resource” and to drive the process with a new comprehensive design plan, rather than commercial interests. The report was discussed at Wednesday’s faculty meeting and released later that day.
Provost Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’87, in his remarks at the meeting, characterized the report as “highly thoughtful and very clearly written.”
The report appears sharply critical of the strategy executed by the MIT Investment Management Company to date, though MITIMCo disagrees. The report’s recommendations are “strategically aligned” with MITIMCo’s existing plans, according to Steven C. Marsh, managing director of real estate.
The report was presented at the sparsely-attended faculty meeting by Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75, the faculty chair and a member of the eight-person faculty committee. The committee was chaired by Thomas A. Kochan, who was the prior faculty chair.
The report enumerates eight findings of the committee, three conclusions, and five design constraints going forward. See sidebar, p. 13.
Need for academic use
The report’s criticism of MITIMCo’s past approach seems stark. From the report:
“This area of land is also the last piece of undeveloped, contiguous campus space lying between the Charles River, Main Street and Ames Street, with ready access to the MBTA Red Line, representing an extremely precious resource …
The planning and development process affecting this part of campus has become intertwined with MIT’s commercial real estate investment goals. …
[F]inancial return should not be the principal criterion of value creation and success for this area of campus. …
The current rezoning plan (as outlined by MITIMCo) for development of the Kendall Square area falls short of the aspirations described above.”
But “I didn’t read it that way,” says Marsh. Marsh sees a lot of alignment between the task force’s recommendations and what MITIMCo has been working on. He cites the importance of an east campus gateway that would mirror the prominence of 77 Massachusetts Avenue, as well as the desire for ground-floor retail and amenities in new buildings. Both featured prominently in MITIMCO’s original proposal from April, 2011, and are key points in the task force report.
Kochan thinks that MITIMCo has been doing the job it was “instructed to do,” and said that MITIMCo staff are professionals who are well-equipped to execute the revised vision articulated by the task force.
There has been substantial confusion over the precise landmark status of buildings E38, E39, and E48: the MIT Press building, Rebecca’s Café, and the Kendall clock tower building.
The executive director of the city’s historical commission has expressed a desire to see those buildings preserved in their current form. But for them to become landmarks, the six-member commission would first have to vote to recommend them as landmarks, and then the nine-member City Council would have to vote to accept that recommendation.
The task force report says that the buildings have been designated as landmarks that must be preserved. That is wrong.
In fact, the negotiation on the landmark status of those buildings seems likely. Kochan said, “We’re recommending that MIT and the representatives of the city sit down and look at a range of options for preserving and honoring the historical significance of Kendall Square. There are a variety of ways to do that that are not just limited to preserving the three buildings in question.”
“I think we could be really creative,” Kochan said. MIT could build “something that honors the history in a very interactive visual kind of way, with some of the physical artifacts of the old buildings. But do it in an MIT style, with educational materials, videos, interactive simulations of what Kendall Square used to look like and looks like today. I think that would be a way to achieve the objectives of historical preservation, but also demonstrate that it’s an area on the move, has been on the move, and will be an important part of the future.”
Of course, MIT has been looking at such options for some time. Discussions with the historical commission began in the summer of 2011, and Marsh has previously told the planning board he is trying to “make it work.”
The text of the report seems to have caused some confusion. When Kaiser introduced the task force results at the faculty meeting, both he and Allen indicated the buildings were landmarks. But, according to Nathaniel W. Nickerson, director of communications at MIT, both the provost and the task force members understood on Wednesday that the buildings had not been designated as landmarks.
A question of timing
At the faculty meeting, Professor Richard de Neufville ’60 (ESD, Civil Engineering) praised the report, but expressed concerns about the timing and sequencing of events.
de Neufville asked why MIT would resubmit its zoning proposal in advance of preparing a comprehensive plan. He suggested there was no particular hurry to submit the zoning petition, and that the planning board would look more favorably upon an upzoning petition that includes features of interest to the city, such as graduate student housing.
Provost Kaiser replied that there was a window of opportunity which might not exist in future.
“With due respect, I would challenge that,” de Neufville said. He suggested there was no particular reason why a zoning petition could not be filed later, and asked for specifics. Kaiser offered to speak with him offline, but did not reply with substance.
Kochan, the committee chair, told The Tech that there is a lot of energy on the city’s side that supports acting now. The city manager, the planning board, and city staff have all been working to respond to MIT and have given feedback, he said. “They are interested in having us come back as soon as possible,” he said.
Additionally, the city’s Kendall-to-Central planing process (K2C2) is winding down, and the outside consultants who are assisting with the process, Goody, Clancy & Associates, are only available for a limited time.
But to a certain extent, the city is expecting MIT’s zoning petition because it has been told to expect it. It could certainly choose to proceed with the non-MIT-specific portions of the Kendall zoning in the interim. Zoning in Kendall Square is divided up into large units by property owner, and the city and the planning board had chosen to tackle MIT’s zoning first, because its zoning unit had the most potential for development, and it had previously filed a zoning petition. But there is nothing about the process that requires MIT’s unit to be handled first.
It is unclear how soon MIT might refile its zoning petition. Kochan said “I think it’ll be ready to be filed soon,” but Marsh seemed less certain. For Marsh, refiling the petition appeared to depend on the negotiations about the landmark status of the three buildings, but it is unclear when those discussions will reach a conclusion.