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MIT president, senior faculty and deans ask Cambridge to approve MIT’s zoning proposal

Reif thanks City Council and the people of Cambridge for valuable input.
Image: Elkus Manfredi Architects

Monday night, at the weekly meeting of the Cambridge City Council, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, accompanied by three senior faculty members, spoke during the public comment period about the Institute's proposed rezoning of 26 acres of land it owns in the Kendall Square area. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal, which is known as the Kendall Square Initiative, on April 8.

In addition, the deans of all five of MIT’s schools — engineering, management, science, architecture and planning, and humanities, arts, and social sciences — formally submitted letters in support of the petition to the City Council.

The initiative aims to bring new vibrancy to Kendall Square through the infusion of new housing, retail, lab and commercial space, as well as enhanced open space. The 1.1-million-square-foot proposal has evolved greatly over the course of three years of review, with significant revisions made in response to input from MIT faculty and students, the Cambridge City Council, the Cambridge Planning Board, Cambridge residents, and others.

In his remarks, Reif thanked the City Council and the Cambridge community for their help in the many ways that they have shaped MIT’s ideas and thinking about Kendall Square: “Our proposal is better for your careful craftsmanship. And that is very good news for the future of MIT.”

Reif described the importance of Kendall Square to the Institute. “Today,” he said, “we see very clearly that serving our mission of research and education requires something new: an intense strategic focus on innovation and entrepreneurship,” which he described as “a vital source of good jobs and economic growth. As the key to accelerating progress, in fields from clean energy to biomedicine. And as a pathway to deliver the fruits of our research to the world.” He explained that in that context, “to serve MIT’s mission, we have a responsibility to cultivate and grow the world-class innovation cluster known as Kendall Square.”

Reif’s remarks were followed by remarks from Phillip Clay, professor of urban studies and planning and former chancellor of MIT; Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering; and Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor in the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Clay, whose area of academic focus is housing and community development, told the Council that Provost Chris Kaiser had asked him to chair a newly formed Graduate Student Housing Working Group — an effort, he explained, that “arose out of concerns and questions raised by the City Council, the MIT Faculty Task Force convened to examine the Kendall proposal, and members of the graduate student and broader communities.” The group, he said, will work both to identify strengths and weaknesses in MIT’s current approach and to recommend ways by which MIT’s graduate-student housing needs can be served into the future. The group will also have a city-appointed liaison who will, Clay said, “insure that the information flow between the city and MIT is smooth. This is very important to us.”

Clay was followed by Robert Langer, who told the Council that he had come to the meeting to describe just how underwhelming Kendall Square was when he arrived in the early 1970s as an MIT graduate student. To occasional laughter, he told of a Kendall Square that over decades had been transformed from a place that had little life at all (apart from a few seedy bars) to one that not only has much greater vibrancy and safety, but that has also attracted people and organizations that want to use science and engineering to make the world a better place. Langer urged the Council to approve MIT’s petition.

Phillip Sharp has also been at MIT since the 1970s, and he too spoke strongly in favor of the petition. He recalled interactions he had had with the Council in the mid-1970s as part of the establishment of guidelines for work in recombinant DNA: shortly after that, he co-founded Biogen and established its labs in Kendall Square. “As you know,” he said, “Biogen and other biotech companies have prospered in Kendall Square and have provided employment for thousands of people.” He said that he strongly recommended approval of the zoning proposal, “so that MIT and Cambridge can continue to shape Kendall Square to enhance its attractiveness as a place to live and work and as well enhance the ability of MIT to attract and train the best students and faculty.”

In advance of last night’s meeting, the deans of MIT’s five schools submitted letters in support of the rezoning petition to the City Council.

Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering, wrote that MIT’s proposal would convert Kendall Square into a much-needed gateway between MIT and the surrounding community. “Visitors to Kendall Square,” he wrote, “will see and experience first-hand the close connections between MIT and the City of Cambridge. In addition, the proposal has carefully preserved academic space that is crucial to the Institute’s future. Through a broad engagement with faculty, students, staff, and other members of our community, we believe the MIT administration has effectively and appropriately addressed the challenges and complexities of this proposal.”

Marc Kastner, dean of the School of Science, wrote forcefully about the importance of maintaining the strength of Kendall Square in the face of cuts to federal funding for basic research. “These are the most challenging times for research universities, in general, and MIT, in particular, since World War Two. The drastic reduction in federal research budgets, which has already taken place and seems impossible to reverse, means a dramatic reduction in the numbers of graduate students and research staff,” he wrote. In order to compete successfully for a smaller pot of funding, MIT will need even stronger ties to area companies and hospitals: “Increased research capacity in Kendall Square,” he wrote, “and the promise of augmented interdisciplinary opportunity, will serve to nurture new linkages that will help protect the future of science in Cambridge.”

Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, noted that several of her school’s departments, such as Economics and Political Science, are located in MIT’s east campus and thus would “benefit tremendously from the new infusion of activity and vibrancy that will result from this proposal.” She also wrote that the school benefits from connections between MIT researchers and local companies. “The potential new vibrancy and cross-fertilization that is ahead of us is breathtaking,” she wrote.

Adèle Naudé Santos, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, described the work that faculty members within her school had contributed to MIT’s proposal by serving on the MIT Faculty Task Force charged by Provost Kaiser to examine the proposal. “As you know,” she wrote, “two of the key recommendations made by the Task Force were to initiate a study of graduate student housing needs and a planning process for the East Campus/Gateway area. The careful work of the Task Force has provided momentum and guidance for new and exciting engagements for faculty in SA+P.” She continued: “Personally, I am delighted to be taking a leadership role in the new East Campus/Gateway planning activity, along with others across the Institute and in the broader community, and am excited for the transformative opportunity that this presents for MIT, Kendall Square, and the City of Cambridge.”

David Schmittlein, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote directly about the benefits of the proposal. “Kendall Square,” he wrote, “is our neighborhood — it’s where we work, study, teach, collaborate, invent, and recreate. The increased sense of place that will be achieved with the MIT proposal will enhance this remarkable environment and make it even more compelling and welcoming. All of Kendall Square’s citizens — our residential neighbors, employees from a wide variety of sectors, visitors, and the broader educational community — will benefit from the new retail, housing, commercial enterprise, and open space that is offered by this proposal.”

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