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MIT offers to rebuild shelter in exchange for street

MIT Monday offered to finance and construct a new building for CASPAR's homeless at the current MIT site at 240 Albany Street, in exchange for the city's transfer to MIT of an equivalent value of segments of campus streets and sidewalks.

The $1.8 million to $2 million proposal was made by MIT President Charles M. Vest in letters to the members of the Cambridge City Council and CASPAR, the Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Rehabilitation, the shelter which has been given a temporary home by MIT at 240 Albany St. since 1979 while it sought a long-term site.

"I ask for your support on this proposal for CASPAR, for Cambridge, for the alcoholic homeless, and for a new era in town-gown relations," wrote Dr. Vest.

"We understand that there is presently no government money available to pay for a site, and it is clear that without a site, and a funding source, there will be no home for CASPAR. Therefore, the exchange proposal allows the city to work with MIT in a partnership effort to use a public asset-some of the city streets on the MIT campus-to fund a public need: CASPAR.

Dr. Vest said MIT is willing "to reconsider its long-term plan to build graduate student housing at 240 Albany Street in order to meet the public health need for a better facility for homeless alcoholics, because it appears that the present site is the only one where CASPAR has ever been accepted."

It was the second major initiative by MIT in the past year to try to break the 19-year political deadlock over the CASPAR shelter. A $2 million MIT plan to buy and renovate a building for CASPAR at 380 Green Street, next to the Central Square Police Station, prompted strong opposition from many Central Square residents and business owners.

The City Council for the past six months has been actively searching for a CASPAR site while also considering MIT's proposal to pay for it. It has set a deadline of March 11 for a vote on the exchange proposal. The proposal requires approval by two-thirds of the nine councilors.

Nineteen years have passed since community leaders and city officials asked CASPAR to come to Central Square and establish a facility to serve the homeless alcoholic population there. In 1974, CASPAR began a fruitless five-year search that ended in 1979 when MIT agreed to provide a temporary site where the shelter has since remained, in three trailers.

Dr. Vest said "The total development for a new building is estimated to cost MIT between $1.8 million and $2 million, depending on conditions at the site."

"We would lease the 20,000 square foot plot of land to CASPAR for $1 a year. CASPAR would have a 20-year renewable lease on the land," he said. MIT, in collaboration with CASPAR, would design and construct a building of 12,000 square feet for a 55-bed facility. "The non-cash value that can compensate MIT for this action on behalf of Cambridge's homeless population is the value of the streets within our campus. MIT agrees that it will not build on these streets, even though the current development potential authorized by the Floor Area Ratio is over 600,000 square feet of space," Dr. Vest said.

There have been numerous city council and public hearings reviewing the merits of using a property exchange to finance the purchase and construction of a new CASPAR building.

"It is not the ordinary mission of a university to find a site and finance a building for a health and human services agency such as CASPAR," said Dr. Vest. "But we have been committed to CASPAR for 14 years and we, along with members of the community, are committed to sustaining their mission.

"The campus street segments and sidewalks involved are the short stretch of the western section of Amherst Street west of Massachusetts Avenue, between Kresge Auditorium and the women's dormitory, McCormick Hall; Carleton Street from the MBTA Station to the eastern section of Amherst Street; its neighboring street, Hayward Street from Main Street to the eastern section of Amherst Street; and the sidewalks of Vassar Street west of Massachusetts Avenue, where MIT plans to build student housing. This proposal is currently under consideration by the Council in the context of the City Manager's submission concerning 380 Green St.

"MIT came to Cambridge in 1916, at the invitation of the Cambridge City Council. Since the 1950s, MIT has responded to requests by the City to solve pressing economic and housing problems. MIT has responded as we are today-with our commitment to Cambridge, our resources and our energy," Dr. Vest said.

Those responses include:

  • MIT's $2 million investment which converted abandoned factories into Technology Square, which at $3 million is now one of the top taxpayers in the city.
  • MIT's turnkey development of 684 elderly housing units, which comprised 29 percent of the affordable housing units built in Cambridge during the 1970s. MIT provided the construction capital and was reimbursed by the federal government for its costs in developing these apartments, now operated by the Cambridge Housing Authority.
  • The University Park development on the former Simplex site, which provided the single largest public or private commitment to the city's new low-income housing stock in the 1980s-150 low and moderate income apartments.

"We recognize that the city is important to us, and that we are important to the city. As you may recall, the Bank of Boston did a study in 1989 that showed that 138 companies and organizations with headquarters in Cambridge were founded by MIT alumni or faculty and provide more than 30,000 jobs," Dr. Vest said.

"We have a great history of accomplishment together. Let's move forward and make things work," Dr. Vest concluded.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 22).

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