MIT 2030 and the Kendall Zoning Issue
MIT, through its real estate entity MITIMCo (MIT Investment Management Company), has proposed to the City of Cambridge a significant increase in permitted density in Kendall Square. Major questions about that proposed plan were raised by many community residents and by some MIT faculty members, particularly highlighting concerns about potential adverse social impacts of gentrification, lack of affordable graduate student housing on and near campus, inadequate transportation capacity, and whether narrow real estate evaluation provides adequate recognition of the long-range interests of MIT as an institution whose primary mission is education and research.
New president Rafael Reif asked Professor Tom Kochan of the Sloan School to chair a task force to review this issue and make a recommendation. Professor Kochan made a Solomonic recommendation – that the increase in zoning density, which provides a significant increase in opportunity for MIT, should be supported, but that the question of what to do with this expanded opportunity needs much deeper consideration by the MIT community.
Given the significance of these strategic decisions at this important moment in the history of the Institute, what principles should inform this discussion? What moral obligation does MIT have to the Cambridge community? To the State and region? To the MIT community? These are questions that the MIT faculty, staff, and student body should be discussing, and engaging the administration and MIT Corporation.
A Little History
Over 40 years ago physical issues of even larger magnitude faced Cambridge and MIT when the state was proposing to build 8-lane highways (the “Inner Belt” and the extension of Route 2) through Cambridge neighborhoods of Cambridgeport, Central Square, and Porter Square, as well as Union Square in Somerville, with the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses and inflicting substantial disruption on neighborhood fabric and transportation systems. The debate over the Inner Belt was polarizing, with significant divisions of opinion about the relative role of public transportation and the automobile, the sustainability of suburban sprawl, the environmental impacts of increasing petroleum consumption and air pollution, and especially the socioeconomic injustice of disrupting inner-city, largely poor and working-class multiracial neighborhoods, for the convenience of higher income, largely white and suburban automobile commuters. The divisions and debate occurred at the national, state, and local levels, with the conventional wisdom of “business as usual” planning elites arguing that the continuation of the 1950s paradigm was essential for economic growth, and environmental justice advocates arguing that this definition of economic progress is unsustainable, and that a transit oriented strategy could lead to more economic growth, improved environmental outcomes, and improved socioeconomic justice. This debate split the MIT community, with the MIT administration pursuing strategies to benefit from the disruption of Cambridgeport and Central Square to expand MIT ownership of neighborhood real estate, while many faculty voices challenged the injustice inherent in that strategy, and demanded that MIT behave as a cooperative member of the Cambridge community.
Kevin Lynch of the MIT Urban Design and Planning faculty actually proposed relocating the highway route to a high viaduct along the Grand Junction railroad, which would have substantially avoided the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. When President Killian of MIT publicly opposed any roadway construction near MIT, junior faculty such as Robert Goodman, Chester Hartman, and Lisa Peattie organized a signature drive attracting over 500 members of the MIT and Harvard academic community who courageously demanded that MIT behave as a good neighbor within the Cambridge community, and either welcome the road in its neighborhood, or oppose the construction of the highways anywhere in Cambridge. Neighborhood opposition skillfully organized by Father Paul McManus of St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish secured the support of Cambridge Mayor Dan Hayes, Congressman Tip O'Neill, Senators Ed Brooke and Ted Kennedy, Boston mayor Kevin White, and state representative (later governor) Mike Dukakis, and built a regional coalition stretching from Cambridge and Somerville to East Boston, and Roxbury to Milton and Needham, demanding a halt to the destruction of the neighborhoods for highways.
In 1970, Governor Sargent asked Professor Alan Altshuler of MIT’s Political Science Department to chair a task force to review the Commonwealth transportation plans, and accepted the task force recommendation of a highway construction moratorium and fundamental transportation policy review. Altshuler designed and implemented the first transportation study to embrace the principles of the newly-enacted (1970) National Environmental Policy Act. Based on that review, Governor Sargent canceled the Inner Belt Highway and Route 2 Extension, secured changes in federal legislation to allow an equal amount of federal funding to be available for public transportation, set in motion the expansion of the Red Line to Porter Square, Davis Square, Alewife, and Braintree, reformed the MBTA, imposed parking limits in Cambridge and downtown Boston, and made gasoline tax money available for transit. The following governor, Dukakis, consolidated and extended the transit-oriented policies, expanding the capacity of the Red and Orange Lines by 50%, and acquired and recapitalized the bankrupt commuter rail networks. These changes in transportation strategy made possible the dramatic growth and economic development in the Kendall Square area, with practically no increase in traffic, and the redeployment of Cambridge street space to more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly uses. The proposed doubling of density in the Kendall Square area could not be contemplated today except for the changes in transportation strategy unleashed by the anti-highway fight. But what about environmental justice? How are the lower-income residents organized by Father McManus faring?
Back to Today
The good news is that the Cambridge neighborhoods were spared the physical destruction that had been planned through Central Square, Porter Square, and Union Square. But Cambridge has increasingly become unaffordable for low- and moderate-income people. The Cambridge Residents Alliance and other residents have challenged the idea that the increased density now proposed can be pursued without worsening the housing affordability problem. Adding high-density, high-income housing to Central Square with only token amounts of affordable housing is likely to spur more gentrification. Many academics and planners say that the continuing increase in rents, especially of transit-accessible housing, is stunting economic growth (see Kaufman "heat" map below). Some MIT faculty and graduate students have argued persuasively that the shortage of affordable graduate housing on or near campus is also undermining the viability of the MIT graduate student research program that is fundamental to the success of MIT.
But doing nothing will only ensure the continuation of gentrification and lack of adequate graduate housing. Densification of Kendall Square can help to change the dynamic. There is a targeted and potentially effective response that MIT can initiate.
The number of graduate students and postdocs for whom MIT does not provide on- or near-campus housing has grown to approximately 4,000 graduate students and 1,000 postdocs, who are displacing low- and moderate-income residents from more affordable housing than the cancelled highways would have destroyed. It is clear that lack of MIT graduate student housing is having a severe adverse impact on housing affordability, probably much more significant than the successful economy.
With reasonable public transportation access, employees of Novartis are much less likely than MIT graduate students to be competing with long-term residents for housing near Central Square, or in Somerville. By committing to a policy of building 100% affordable housing for graduate students either on campus or nearby, and implementing it quickly, MIT could simultaneously ease gentrification pressure on the neighborhoods and deal definitively with the need for affordable graduate student housing. If, in addition, MIT were to provide affordable on- or near-campus housing to junior faculty and staff, MIT could further reduce gentrification pressures, and improve its competitiveness in recruiting junior faculty.
If MIT or Kendall Square developers were allowed to “buy” additional development rights from Central Square, and transfer them to Kendall Square, moderate height, low- and moderate-income housing could be added near Central Square, financed by the purchase of development rights, helping the City to stabilize the density and affordability of Central Square. In Kendall Square, increased high-rise development would be further from traditional neighborhoods.
In terms of transportation access, doubling the density of economic activity in Kendall Square risks attracting more traffic to a street network that is already congested. MIT can take three significant actions to offset this risk. First, MIT could substantially expand its transit benefit program to provide (at least) as much subsidy to transit commuting as it provides in below-market parking prices for auto commuters. Nearby Novartis provides free transit passes to all its employees. Imagine the “green” message if MIT were to provide all of its students, staff, and faculty free transit passes! Second, MIT could go on a "parking diet,” reducing the amount of on–campus parking as well as that proposed to meet the expanded density envisioned at Kendall Square, thereby reducing the traffic generation that would otherwise occur. Third, by supporting changing signalization at the intersections of Ames Street and Wadsworth Street with Memorial Drive, MIT can help to provide better automobile access to Kendall Square from Memorial Drive, reducing pressure on Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, and Third Street, and strengthening the symbolic connection of Kendall Square to the magnificent amenity that is the Charles River Reservation with high-quality pedestrian connections.
The challenge of providing adequate levels of new public transportation capacity to supplement the crowded Red Line requires MIT to join a coalition arguing that the State quickly implement "Urban Ring" bus service, Green Line or DMU rail service in the Grand Junction Corridor, modernize the Red Line signal system, and purchase more Red Line railcars. If the higher building density proposed near Kendall Square is accompanied by a parking cap at current levels, new development will require transit improvements, and the developers and MIT will have to lobby the State to deliver more and better transit service. The State will have to make significant improvements in public transportation to convince the public, as well as developers, that it is reasonable to pursue higher density.
MIT is asking for permission to double the development density of its land. If MIT argues (correctly, in my view) that higher density at Kendall is good for economic, environmental, and equitable sustainability, then MIT needs to take the lead by building at least 5,000 units of affordable graduate student housing, and reducing the automobile dependency of its existing campus, as well as in its Kendall Square proposals.
If the City of Cambridge permits the doubling of density in the Kendall Square area, they are providing a very large financial benefit to MIT and other landowners in the area, a benefit that creates a huge moral obligation for MIT and others to reciprocate. I agree with the recommendation of Professor Kochan’s committee that the MIT community should support the increase in zoning density, but reconsider in a much more open discussion with faculty, staff, students, and the broader community how MIT should use this opportunity. Provost Chris Kaiser has now designated Professor Phil Clay as chair of a graduate student housing working group, which can serve as a forum for this discussion. To be meaningful, the task force should not waste time deciding if there is a shortage of affordable graduate student housing. It is clear that MIT has an urgent responsibility to construct 5,000 to 6,000 housing units for graduate students and postdocs, married students, and junior faculty. The task force should focus on where and how to add this housing in timely fashion to be included in the Kendall Square redevelopment prior to final City approval.
The rest is up to us. Over 40 years ago MIT faculty such as Professors Kevin Lynch, Robert Goodman, Lisa Peattie, Tunney Lee, and Alan Altshuler "thought globally, and acted locally," courageously challenged the business-as-usual attitudes of the MIT administration, and substantially improved the trajectory of urban development in the Boston metropolitan area, and the nation. The discussion of how best to use the opportunity of Kendall densification is this generation's opportunity for leadership by the MIT community.
Fred Salvucci was an MIT graduate in transportation who went on to work as a volunteer in the anti-highway, pro-transit citizen coalition of the 1960s and 70s. He later served as Secretary of Transportation for Governor Michael Dukakis.