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MIT injecting life into Kendall Square

School will spend $700m; some seek more housing

By Jay Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2011
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For all of its success as a center of commerce, Kendall Square in Cambridge remains something of an urban desert, with unused spaces and buildings isolated by wide streets, exaggerating the sense of emptiness.

But that may soon change.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is preparing to spend $700 million to redevelop eight of its properties in Kendall Square, adding to the transformation of what is largely a commercial zone to a more pedestrian-friendly, lively neighborhood where people would live as well as work.

“MIT’s proposed new development has the potential to transform Kendall Square into a vibrant dynamic place where the activity at the ground is as cutting-edge as the science above,’’ said Cambridge’s city manager, Robert Healy.

MIT officials expect to submit a revised plan to Cambridge officials within a month or so, after gathering reaction from neighbors and city planners. Construction on some of the first buildings could be finished within two or three years of getting permits, they said.

The university’s plans add to an already robust construction scene around Kendall Square, with 5 million square feet of lab and office space underway or under consideration.

The new buildings, valued at more than $2 billion, would host operations for some of the pharmaceutical industry’s leading companies.

Meanwhile, Cambridge itself is in the midst of broader development review that is also looking at other underutilized spaces throughout Kendall Square, as well as in nearby Central Square and along the section of Main Street that connects the two.

City officials hope this will prompt other developers to follow MIT’s lead and add buildings with a range of activities that would contribute to a lively street life.

MIT’s plan echoes that of Harvard University, which is launching a massive build-out across the Charles River in North Allston. In addition to school-related buildings, Harvard is trying to replicate the success of the current Kendall Square by developing a 36-acre “enterprise research campus’’ that will include as many as 12 commercial and academic buildings aimed at attracting private companies.

In Kendall Square, most of MIT’s work would be around the lower Main Street corridor near the MBTA Red Line station. The construction plan calls for about 1.1 million square feet of new space at eight locations in Kendall Square, including two large office, lab, and retail buildings along Main Street. Other facilities would be built on parking lots just south of Main Street and near MIT’s One Broadway office building by Memorial Drive.

MIT is also proposing to create an outdoor plaza at the Kendall Square T Station and to make extensive “streetscape’’ improvements, such as with benches, trees, and streetlights.

The university’s managing director of real estate, Steve Marsh, said MIT’s overall goal is to “knit the Kendall Square community together.’’

But nearby residents complain that the major shortcoming of MIT’s plan is that it does not call for enough housing. The original proposal included about 120 housing units, which current residents said is not nearly enough to transform Kendall from a commuter zone.

“We don’t want a 9-to-5 Kendall Square,’’ said Barbara Broussard, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, a community group. MIT, she argued, is too focused on commercial development rather than on building a true mixed-used neighborhood with bustling shops and housing.

“We’re very opposed to the idea as it is now,’’ she said. “They’re not giving anything to the community.’’

Cambridge officials said they are also pressing MIT to add more housing to its plans.

Assistant City Manager Brian Murphy, Cambridge’s point person on MIT’s build-out, said the university has to build “significantly more’’ than the 120,000 square feet of housing it has proposed, slated for a surface lot next to One Broadway.

MIT is now looking to add more housing to its plans, said Marsh, the real estate executive, as well as what he termed “funky retail’’ components that would answer the city’s and residents’ desire to avoid filling the area with chain stores.

Recently there has been some housing and retail added to the area, particularly along Third Street. One study conducted for MIT suggested putting even more housing and restaurants along Third Street, though those are not part of MIT’s current development plan before the City of Cambridge.

The Kendall Square Initiative itself is part of a much-larger 20-year capital plan by MIT to make major building and infrastructure improvements across the university’s sprawling campus. It also includes at least two new on-campus buildings dedicated to energy, environmental, and materials research, according to preliminary plans.

Over the years, MIT has been instrumental in making Kendall Square a mecca for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Last week, ground was broken on a 230,000-square-foot building on MIT-owned land at 610 Main St. that will house research operations for Pfizer Inc., the giant pharmaceutical company.

MIT is also working with Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, and other companies on building office and research facilities on university land elsewhere in Cambridge.

Other large property owners are undertaking ambitious expansions, too, including a $500 million complex of seven buildings by Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. and several buildings by Boston Properties.

The goal of the larger Kendall-Central squares initiative by the city is to establish long-term commercial, retail, and housing priorities on both MIT and other privately owned properties in those areas, city officials say.

The study is being conducted by Goody Clancy, a Boston architectural and urban-design firm, and is expected to be completed in March.

Healy said the goal is to strengthen the city’s “innovation economy’’ and give the area a more bustling neighborhood feel.

“This is a terrific opportunity to increase the activity near and surrounding Kendall Square,’’ he said.

Other businesses in the area worry that MIT’s ambitious plan will be delayed if the zoning review is bogged down by drawn-out negotiations.

“Kendall Square is now the ‘it’ place for innovation,’’ said Travis McCready, executive director of the Kendall Square Association, a business group.

“Everyone wants to be there. But you have to strike while the iron is hot.’’

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