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MIT professors balk at university's zoning proposal for campus and Kendall Square

Posted by Your Town  January 17, 2013 05:45 PM

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Ten senior faculty members at MIT are raising objections to a new zoning proposal by the university which they say seeks financial gain at the expense of educational and research needs.

The proposal by the MIT Investment Management Company would allow the creation of more than two million square feet of mixed use development on 26 acres of land on the MIT campus and in Kendall Square.

As many as 300 housing units could be created under the proposed zoning, as well as 980,000 square feet of office, lab and retail space and about 800,000 square feet of academic space.

But in a letter to the Cambridge Planning Board dated Jan. 11, the group of senior faculty members said more housing is needed for graduate students, and instead of including provisions for the housing the MIT petition emphasizes return on real estate investment through commercial development.

See the letter here: mitfacultyletter111.pdf

“In our judgment, this use of limited campus land for commercial development will undermine MIT’s unique abilities to contribute to solving national problems through education and advanced research, and it will dilute its contribution to the Cambridge community,” the faculty members wrote in the letter.

The zoning proposal filed by the MIT Investment Management Company in December, is currently being reviewed by the Cambridge Planning Board and will ultimately be voted on by the Cambridge City Council.

At a kick-off meeting with the Planning Board Tuesday, Brian Spatocco, president of the MIT graduate student counsel, also raised concerns about the lack of rental units in Cambridge.

Israel Ruiz, the executive vice president and treasurer for MIT, told the board the university is forming a committee that will study over the next 12 to 18 months the housing needs of students and particularly graduate students.

According to MIT, about 39 percent of its 6,259 graduate students are housed by the university, and more than 1,300 new graduate beds have been added since 1997.

The zoning proposal filed by MIT includes provisions more than double the amount of housing that had been included in a previous petition filed by the university in 2011 seeking new zoning regulations. The petition comes as demand for more office and laboratory space in Kendall Square has also been high with a rapidly growing concentration of technology companies in the area.

Sarah Gallop, the co-director of government and community relations for MIT, said Thursday that the zoning petition seeks to strike a balance between housing, office and lab space, and ground floor retail space for MIT’s east campus.

Gallop said the idea is to create a synergy and energy in the area that will help to support MIT’s mission in the long term.

But Jonathan King, a professor of molecular biology at MIT for 42 years and co-signer of the letter to the Planning Board, said Thursday that the inability of graduate students to find housing near the campus is already well known and does not need an 18-month study. King said having students in close proximity to the campus is important for the sharing of ideas, and a lack of housing could affect MIT’s ability to compete with other top universities in recruiting the best graduate students.

“I have no doubt that this is going to retard our ability to get the best students,” he said.
Gallop said the university is going to take a serious look at its housing needs and a chair for the committee to lead the study could be chosen as soon as Friday.

Brian Murphy, the assistant city manager for community development in Cambridge, said the amount of development included in the MIT proposal has been dramatically shaped by the city’s Kendall and Central Square planning study, and there is a significant amount of agreement between the goals outlined in the city’s study and the university’s petition.

Murphy said the Planning Board will continue its review of the zoning proposal in February and the board’s recommendation will then go to the city council for the final decision.

--brock.globe@gmail.com

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