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MIT presents Town Gown to Cambridge

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In what has become an important component of the dialogue between MIT and the Cambridge community, Executive Vice President John Curry and a team of senior MIT officials presented the sixth annual Town Gown Report to the Cambridge Planning Board on Feb. 4.

The presentation before about 75 city councilors, staff and residents at the Senior Citizen's Center across from City Hall, was broader in scope than in previous years. In addition to facts, figures, and project updates, it also focused on environmental initiatives, local education and community interaction. And for the first time, the presentation touched on the major role that MIT plays in Cambridge as an economic engine attracting innovation, industry, investment and jobs.

"It was a very good night all around," said Sarah Gallop, co-director of MIT's Office of Government and Community Relations. "Some of the initiatives we've been talking about for years, like the new building program, are finally coming to fruition. And in a year that has seen Novartis putting down roots in Tech Square and the explosion of Cambridge's biotech industry, we were able to focus much of the talk on MIT's significant contribution to the local economy."

This academic year saw the opening of three student dormitories totaling 1,200 beds, Curry said. More than 45 percent of all graduate students are now living in MIT dormitories and apartments, which should reduce pressure on the tight housing market.

Highlights of the building program over the next few months include the demolition of East Garage, long regarded as a major eyesore; groundbreaking for the new brain and cognitive sciences project; and the start of reconstruction of the Memorial Drive/Massachusetts Avenue intersection, partially funded by MIT, Curry added.

MIT also has paid for significant improvements to public infrastructure in the area around campus, including rebuilding Vassar Street's storm water and sewer pipes and the traffic signals on Memorial Drive at Wadsworth Street and Endicott Street completed last year.

MIT has recently instituted a variety of programs to improve water and energy efficiency on campus and to minimize the impact of hazardous materials on the surrounding environment. And the audience was amused to learn that MIT recycled 198 mattresses last year--equal to 4.5 tons of bedding--and replaced 180 washers and 191 dryers with water- and energy-efficient models.

Steven Marsh, managing director of real estate in the Treasurer's Office, explained how MIT's academic and real estate initiatives have strengthened Cambridge economically. MIT paid more than $15 million in real estate taxes, more than any other property owner in the city.

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies have flooded to Cambridge during the past year, in large part to be close to MIT. There are now more than 70 biotech firms located within a one-mile radius of campus, and Tech Square has become a leading-edge biotech, nanotech and infotech center, Marsh said. The result is an expanding tax base, increased retail development and more job opportunities for local residents.

At the same time, Marsh added, MIT has done everything possible to preserve historically significant buildings in the area. He noted that the historic restoration of the former Kaplan Furniture Building at 28 Osborn St. was recently completed, and its 180,000 square feet of biotechnology space is fully occupied by Transkaryotic Therapies.

Gallop and Paul Parravano, co-director of the Office of Government and Community Relations, focused on contributions MIT has made to the local community. The Institute works closely with the Cambridge public school system through dozens of programs and initiatives designed to enhance learning and teaching. Approximately 1,000 MIT students volunteer in community programs and MIT supports dozens of Cambridge nonprofit organizations with financial and in-kind resources. MIT is also heavily committed to the City Council's new University Relations Committee, chaired by Councilor David Maher.

"We try to share as much information as possible, to listen well to our neighbors and officials, and to work toward mutual understanding," Gallop said.

Thomas Anninger, chair of the Planning Board, thanked the presenters for their enthusiasm and comprehensiveness and opened the floor to questions and comments.

Councilor Brian Murphy pressed for a written Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement between MIT and the city. Curry noted that such an agreement is being negotiated and should be completed soon.

One resident noted, to the amusement of the audience, that he thought the new Simmons Dormitory was the "ugliest building in Cambridge." Curry responded by saying he knew the building elicited strong opinions.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 2003.

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