The Current East Campus Plan
Still Needs More Grad Student Housing
The East Campus/Kendall Square initiative as currently envisioned will adversely affect the graduate student body of MIT by making no serious commitment to deal with the existing and worsening graduate student housing crisis at MIT. Failing to make significant progress now on increasing the availability of affordable on- and near-campus housing for graduate students will undermine the long-term viability of the research and education missions of MIT. It will also detract from the reputation of MIT as a member of the Boston and Cambridge community if MIT misses the opportunity to secure the viability of its unique research-oriented approach to education, which has proven so valuable to the economy of the region, and simultaneously to mitigate the escalation of housing costs for the general Cambridge population caused, in part, by the lack of available and affordable on-campus graduate student housing.
The Institute plan fails to follow through on the recommendations of the review of graduate student housing needs, issued by the commission chaired by Professor Phil Clay, to review the need for increased graduate student housing.
The Clay Commission report recommended that MIT build 1000 units of new, "swing," and replacement housing to deal with immediately identified pressing needs for graduate student housing, and further considered the Kendall Square area an ideal location to locate graduate student housing that would be valued by the graduate student community.
Yet the announced plan proposes:
- To eliminate the 200 units of married graduate student housing and the child care facility at Eastgate, with a commercial laboratory building proposed in its place;
- Immediate action to build market-rate housing on the essentially vacant land controlled by MIT adjacent to One Broadway opposite the new Sloan School expansion;
- Construction of a commercial office building on the mostly vacant land owned by MIT adjacent to the Kendall MBTA head house, and the building occupied by Cambridge Trust, immediately available for development;
- Creating a new open space with underground parking below the site in the readily available land at the parking lots adjacent to the MIT Medical Department;
- An unspecified amount of replacement graduate student housing on a site currently occupied by a potentially historic building (the MIT Press building), which is full of MIT administrative and educational functions, with no physical or financial plan to deal with the relocation of the existing activities, or demolition of the extremely solid existing building.
The net effect of these actions would be to actually worsen the graduate student housing crisis in the short term by displacing Eastgate housing with a commercial lab, while there is no relocation plan for the activities currently located at the MIT Press building proposed for replacement housing.
The proposed actions also ignore the MIT and community feedback to the urban design review launched in response to the recommendation by the Committee on Community Engagement considering how to redevelop MIT-owned property in the Kendall Square area. The Kochan Committee review was in response to concerns that long-term issues vital to MIT as an educational institution are being ignored by the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) in the pursuit of short-term real estate profit. The urban design concepts presented to the public by a combination of consultants and MIT faculty identified Kendall as an appropriate location for graduate student housing. It also presented concepts of replacing the parking lots near the Medical building with open space, and redeveloping the housing at 100 Memorial Drive and adjacent buildings, to provide view corridors to the Charles River. But at the public review meetings, the need for this kind of open space proposed at that location was seriously challenged, and concerns were raised about potential loss of housing at 100 Memorial Drive, and the prudence of eliminating still-functional buildings.
The parking and traffic generation associated with commercial buildings was raised by the attendees, but the only response was that City of Cambridge review procedures would be followed. The extremely high cost of underground parking was not discussed. The urban design group stated that there had been no interaction with the Clay Commission, then still considering feedback to its draft report. Substantial comment from the MIT and general community present called for the need for more consideration of these issues, and the integration with the Clay Commission effort, but the urban design study ended without further interaction with the Clay Commission, the MIT community, or the general public.
The announced plan proposes no role for the new Faculty Planning Committee. After discussion on the campus and adoption of resolutions last spring at the faculty meeting, the Faculty Planning Committee members have been elected. But this Kendall implementation plan preempts any meaningful role for this just-formed committee.
Finally, the proposed actions to use MIT-owned property near Kendall for non-academic use are in violation of the commitments MIT previously made to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the Kendall Square urban renewal plan. If this commitment were honored, it would protect the long-term interests of MIT as an institution of higher learning from being threatened by rising real estate prices that make academic use seem financially unfeasible. But the Cambridge City Council action secured by MIT to authorize the up zoning of MIT property at Kendall Square threatens to intensify those real estate values, which will make academic uses seem even more unfeasible.
MIT is currently poorly served by a defective administrative structure, which replaced the planning function of the Institute, which ought to be concerned with long-term success of the Institute as an educational and research enterprise over the next 25 to 50 years, and gave the planning responsibility to a real estate development subsidiary of the Institute, MITIMCo, which is dominated by the typical short-term focus on profitability in a fluid real estate market over the next 5 to 10 years.
This structural defect should be dealt with by a further administrative restructuring, but there is no time to defer action until then. The current deeply flawed plan for the East Campus area should be modified by prioritizing the use of the three easily available sites (at the Cambridge Trust Bank and parking lot, the parking adjacent to the Medical Department, and the MIT-owned site in Kendall Square across Main Street from the Sloan School), to immediately build replacement married graduate student housing and a daycare center in advance of any demolition of the Eastgate housing, and to add at least 600 net new graduate student housing units, to reach at least the amount of graduate student housing recommended by the Clay Commission (400 units as replacement and swing housing, and 600 net new housing units). This action would have several beneficial impacts:
- It would show immediate action to build 1000 units of graduate student housing in the Kendall Square area identified by both the Clay Commission and the urban design study as ideal for graduate student housing.
- It could provide an opportunity for a meaningful faculty involvement in campus planning by involving the new committee in the questions of massing and design of the housing reuse of these Kendall parcels of land and the questions raised in the urban design effort about how to redevelop the aging 100 Memorial Drive property by considering interesting new view corridors while increasing the amount of affordable housing at that site.
- It could also provide an opportunity for the new Faculty Planning Committee to review the Clay Commission report. MIT committed to do a graduate student needs study during the Cambridge City Council deliberations on the MIT proposals to up zone the land owned by MIT near Kendall Square. A study by the Graduate Student Council, presented by then-president of the Council Brian Spatocco, had indicated a shortfall of approximately 6000 graduate student and postdoc beds at MIT, and a severely spiking rental market, reflecting the growing scarcity of housing in both Cambridge and Somerville. Had MIT merely kept pace with the goal articulated in 1962 by the Bush/Brown Committee, there would be approximately 1000 more beds on campus today, built at much less inflated construction costs.
The Clay Commission took an additional year-and-a-half to come up with essentially identical findings of the shortfall on campus and recognized that Cambridge rents have risen by 30 percent in the past three years. It also recognized that the number of graduate students has risen by 800 in the past five years. In addition, it also noted a likely increase in demand of 3000-8000 housing units in Cambridge will be generated by the expected job growth in Kendall Square. The Clay Commission did not estimate the amount of affordable housing need generated by the MIT decision to use the former Simplex site for commercial development through Forest City, rather than housing.
But the Commission viewed its mandate very narrowly, and insisted on not considering the impact on the affordable housing crisis in Cambridge, Somerville, or Boston; not considering the shortfall caused by postdocs; not considering the need to renew the aging housing for undergraduate students, nor the need for MIT labs, classrooms, libraries, etc.; taking an extremely minimal view of the need for graduate student on-campus housing, based only on last year's waiting list; and not considering the recent spiking increases in rental prices in the area.
Many observers felt that at least the 2000 graduate students currently in the superheated Cambridge market should be accommodated on campus, at a minimum, while others argued that recognizing the increasing severity of housing prices, it would be more prudent and appropriate for MIT to build over 5000 units of graduate student housing, for both the welfare of the students, and also as a community partner policy to relieve pressure on the superheated Cambridge housing market. To put the shortfall of 5000-6000 beds in the context of affordable housing supply in Cambridge, the entire production and preservation of affordable housing in Cambridge through the City initiatives since the affordable housing program was instituted by the City of Cambridge as part of the Community Preservation Act was approximately 1500 units, roughly half of which are retention and preservation of pre-existing affordable units, for a net addition of fewer than 800 units.
The newly designated Faculty Planning Committee could consider the likely need for approximately 5000 additional on- and near-campus graduate student beds beyond the immediate actions for 1000 units at Kendall in the context of the available MIT-owned sites in the Northwest Campus area. Additionally, the Faculty Planning Committee can begin to grapple with the aging undergraduate student housing supply, as well as MIT's needs for classroom, lab, and library support for the educational mission. If the commitments to retain MIT-owned property for academic use are respected, the financing of these educational needs can be based on the much lower acquisition cost of this land, not its current inflated market price, providing a financially stable model for the future viability of MIT as an educational and research center of excellence.
There is now also a unique opportunity for MIT to both secure the long-term viability of the MIT educational mission, by using its campus lands exclusively for education, research, and student housing purposes, and capture part of the real estate value it has created. By selling the added development rights conferred upon MIT by the Cambridge City Council to private developers of privately held parcels in the Kendall Square area now in the process of framing their development plans, MIT can secure significant financial benefit, while continuing to prioritize the use of MIT-owned land for long-term research, educational, and housing purposes, appropriate for a non-profit university.
It would provide an opportunity for MIT to lead by example. The inflationary impact on the scarce supply of affordable, transit-served housing in the Boston area caused by Boston area university students not housed on campus is increasingly the focus of media attention. But there is no other university in the Boston area that is so reliant on graduate student and postdoc contributions to research as MIT. MIT has readily available land at Kendall. While finance is always a difficult problem, the Boston Globe recently reported that the MIT endowment increased by about 19% last year. The sale of development rights in Kendall Square to private developers of non-MIT parcels could further support the financial feasibility of this effort. Graduate student housing built today, at today's construction cost, rather than in the future, at inflated cost, is a prudent investment for the Institute. While it is difficult to get multiple universities to collaborate on a single housing initiative, it remains highly feasible for MIT to deal fully with the housing needs of its own students, and in so doing simultaneously relieve pressure on both the graduate students and the general public. Moreover, MIT can initiate a collaboration with the City of Cambridge to identify locations and financial support to provide affordable housing for the workers attracted by the MIT real estate ventures like Forest City. In short, MIT could take responsibility for the consequences of its activities, and lead.