Following six years of negotiations and public meetings, the Cambridge City Planning Board approved MIT’s plans for a massive renovation of Kendall Square that aims to revitalize the area and attract more research companies.
MIT’s “East Campus” is slated to be completely remodeled, allowing for additional open space, new academic buildings, more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, and more housing for graduate students and Cambridge residents.
While councillors praised the redevelopment for its vision for Kendall Square and the commercial opportunities it will provide, some said they wished MIT would have gone further in creating affordable housing units for graduate students.
“Overall I think it’s going to be a pretty positive project,” Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern said. “Like any project there will be things that maybe could be done better or more like the graduate student housing.”
Affordable housing has recently been a topic of heated discussion at the City Council.
“The obvious shortcoming is that the campus and the city do get a lot of placemaking, but they don’t get a solution for the housing woes and the equity woes that we have had for longer than 20 years,” Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen, an MIT graduate, said. “That’s a good start, but it’s not by any means an acceptable ending point.”
MIT’s plan does include provisions for graduate student housing in Kendall Square, as well as a housing “that will accommodate a mix of incomes and unit sizes.”
Both MIT and Harvard play a significant role in the housing market in Cambridge, Mazen said. Graduate students who are not guaranteed housing often choose to live together in off-campus apartments, driving up the rental price.
“Universities, both Harvard and MIT are always trying to figure out how they can get predictability and cooperability out of the Council,” Mazen said. “The Council is always trying to figure out how we can get a long term plan for equity and access and a reduction in housing pressures.”
Kendall Square, a home to a plethora of biotech, energy and information technology firms, has even inspired Harvard as it plans its growing Allston campus. Harvard’s focus remains across the Charles River in the Boston neighborhood, as it resumes construction on a $1 billion complex for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences alongside many smaller projects. Following a meeting last March, Cambridge City Councillors and Harvard administrators described the relations between Harvard and Cambridge as amicable.
Discussions of the renovations have been ongoing since 2010. MIT’s original rezoning proposal in 2011 was shot down by the City Council for what they thought was a paucity affordable housing units. In 2013, members of the MIT administration, including MIT President L. Rafael Reif, attended a Cambridge City Council meeting to lobby for a new rezoning proposal, which included provisions for more affordable housing units.
Following the Council’s approval of the petition in 2013, the plan underwent further revisions by the Council and the Planning Board to reach its current state.
“Obviously it seems like it’s been a very long time and it has been a very long time,” McGovern said. “But it is moving ahead.”
This is not the first time social life in Kendall Square has been subject to scrutiny by city officials. In 2011 the Cambridge City Council discussed an appropriation of up to $175,000 to revitalize the area and its nightlife, which councillors claimed “lacks appeal” for tourists, when compared to other city squares. Since then, Kendall Square has seen an increase in the number of restaurants and even a proposal for a skyscraper.
“It really is what you see in a lot of downtown areas,” McGovern said. “When people aren’t there to work everything kind of shuts down, and now it’s transforming into some place that is going to be much more vibrant 24/7.
In an MIT-produced video celebrating the approval of the renovations, Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons, Councillor David P. Maher and City Manager Richard C. Rossi spoke alongside MIT officials, praising the project.
—Staff writer Joshua Florence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.