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City zoning compromise affects MIT east side

After three years of meetings and discussion, the Cambridge City Council by a 7-2 vote has approved a compromise citywide zoning amendment that rezoned a portion of the eastern MIT campus to reflect its academic use now and in the future.

The council also approved a substantial reduction in permitted density for selected commercial districts. MIT owns some investment property in one of those districts.

Other elements of the rezoning that affect MIT include:

  • MIT-owned land in Cambridgeport will be available for academic, residential and commercial uses, but this area is subject to a newly proposed zoning petition which is expected to be filed in a few weeks.
  • Mechanical equipment on rooftops must be visually screened and acoustically buffered from neighbors.
  • Certain setback and height restrictions will not apply to property abutting the railroad tracks from Memorial Drive to Main Street.
  • A city traffic review of campus projects will be undertaken only when MIT creates 150 or more new parking spaces or relocates 250 spaces.
  • Only projects within 100 feet of a public way will be subject to design review.

As major property owners in the city, MIT and Harvard University both filed objections to the Planning Board's original rezoning proposal, thus requiring seven votes for the petition to pass. The compromise petition addressed most of the objections.

"We believe that the passage of the compromise package is an important achievement for the city and for MIT," said Sarah Gallop of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations. "We understand that in the end, people are not getting everything they want because it's truly a compromise. But all of us will benefit from the substantial movement toward achieving the city's goals of more housing, less traffic and an enhanced visual environment."

In a letter to the Cambridge City Clerk dated January 17, MIT Executive Vice President John R. Curry said, "MIT shares the goals and vision set forth to guide the rezoning process. We fully support sustaining a high quality of life for all residents, supporting housing that meets the full spectrum of incomes and personal needs, reducing traffic and offering amenities that make walking and bicycling more possible and enjoyable, preserving neighborhoods and improving our urban environment."

Vice President Curry went on to differentiate between the impacts associated with commercial development as compared with academic projects:

"The traffic generated and the parking requirement for institutional projects are substantially below those of commercial projects," he said. "The way we plan and develop our campus reflects our long-term perspective as an abiding presence in Cambridge. We pay attention to design quality, preservation, open space, and housing and street amenities because we are driven by our mission rather than economic forces. For these reasons, the controls applied to constrain the impacts of commercial development may not have the desired effects when applied to universities."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2001.

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