A Critical Look at the Plan
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With respect to the specific building proposals I would offer the following observations:
Building 2. The design of this 200-foot building is extremely awkward and, if built, will be a continuing embarrassment to the Institute. In addition, our community will experience extreme wind conditions in the vicinity of the building that will be difficult to correct. The building overshadows existing Sloan campus buildings, making the MIT campus and the Sloan campus in particular even less inviting than it is now. Contrary to the statements made to the Planning Board about MIT’s commitment to create a handsome pedestrian route along Wadsworth Street to the Charles River, this building introduces a truck and parking entrance from Wadsworth Street that will negate any notion of a pedestrian-friendly access to the River from Kendall Square.
Building 3. At 238 feet with its large, almost 40,000-foot floor plate, this building will also negatively affect the movement of pedestrians and cyclists along Wadsworth Street. The shadows this bulky building will cast will make walking on Main Street even less appetizing in the wintertime than it is now. In addition, the building’s dimensions are a reflection of an antiquated notion about the flexibility needed for scientific research buildings. Buildings with large floor plates with extensive areas where daylight does not penetrate into space occupied by human beings are not ideal for the kind of flexibility that is essential for research. The proposal to use this building for laboratory purposes should be closely reviewed. If the MIT wind consultant is correct, the wind will carry effluent from east to west and will directly affect the residential building MIT proposes to build for graduate students.
Building 4. At 299 feet this building is adjacent to a proposed new MBTA station head house but has no direct all-weather connection to the station platform. This all-weather feature was anticipated in earlier MIT plans for the East Campus south of Main Street as far back as the 1980s when the new station was developed.
The childcare facility open space will be a most unfriendly place with a majority of the space in shadow from the adjacent Suffolk Building and the bulk of the tower portion of Building 4.
The replacement residential building proposed for graduate students raises a number of questions that are unanswered in the proposal. Will the building be air conditioned to avoid the pollution that will be generated by the adjacent laboratory buildings being built as part of this project? What will be the rent structure for this project? What are the unit sizes? How affordable will these apartments be for graduate students? What proportion of the families living here will have children in the childcare center? If most of the patrons of the childcare center are non residents, how will their vehicles be accommodated during the morning and evening rush?
The floor plan and architecture of this building is cruel. It is far below what should be an MIT standard for good design. The two principal elevations are east and west. The residents will enjoy none of the southern exposure and views over the Charles River Basin that would make for a pleasant living experience. Few of the amenities that have been available to Eastgate residents for 50 years will be available in the new building. There will be no view of the Charles River Basin from a building common room and no laundry and play area at the top of the building for young parents. Access to the apartment house from the center of the site is painfully awkward and one can imagine how difficult it will be for residents with packages or baby carriages to negotiate entry to the building during winter conditions.
Building 5. This 280-foot office and research building proposes to accommodate the MIT Museum on two levels. There is no all-weather access provided to the T station platform, something that would only make access to the museum even more important for the public. The proposal to rebuild the head house entrance to the T station further into the MIT campus has drawn criticism from the staff and members of the Cambridge Planning Board as being insensitive to the needs of the general public. This building, with its overpowering bulk, will have a negative impact on the Kendall Hotel and will eliminate all of the light enjoyed by the occupants of the building occupied by MIT’s Health Science program in E25, the Whitaker Building. The building will create an ugly canyon on Deacon Street, a private way, not owned by MIT.
Another major fault of this building is its lack of a direct connection to the MIT corridor system that would bring both the MIT community and the public from the T station to and from their many destinations at the Institute.
The large floor plate approach to this and other buildings does not bode well for the future. These buildings offer substantially reduced natural light to the occupants and raise questions about MIT’s commitment to a quality working environment. It also belies the notion of flexibility which has been a hallmark of MIT-built buildings. Will these buildings be useful in years to come? And for whom?
Building 6. This is a small building that has as one of its objectives the screening of the ugly face of the loading docks serving the physical plant shops and other services in the Ford Building. At this it fails miserably. Instead of a building that blocks this unfortunate view with portals that can be closed off when not in use, it continues to convey the back side of the Institute to the public. For the thousands of patrons of Legal Sea Foods that is their view of MIT now, and if this project goes forward will continue to be at least their partial view in the future. Furthermore, the lack of any future connection to the Ford Building (E19) that would correct the awkward entrance and elevator service for the public at 400 Main Street is very shortsighted.
The architecture of these buildings, as has been gently suggested by the City’s Planning Staff report, is far short of what the City should expect of MIT. The designs are mundane and lack the most elemental sense of belonging to the MIT environment. The City is questioning this level of design in one of the most important sites in the City. Should the MIT faculty not step forward and make their views known about an architecture that is offensive to the eye and impractical for generations to come?
This proposal has many faults and questionable ideas. As suggested by the City’s Planning Staff report, a substantial effort to revise and improve this proposal must be made. It should not be approved until the proponent shows a real effort to improve the quality of the proposal.
With regard to the financial advantages of this proposal, namely a Cambridge tax revenue of ~ $10 million per annum and perhaps twice that much to the MIT Endowment income, we should understand that when the time comes that academic pressures are such that a future administration will seek to take these buildings into the academic plant there will be some serious financial adjustments. The City, based on MIT’s current in lieu of tax agreements will have a call, for a number of years, for the tax revenue it has lost. That real estate tax cost may have to be levied against the Institute’s academic budget. In addition, the cost of the buildings transferred from the Endowment to the academic plant will likely be at market value. Given the expectation that these buildings will command rents in the $70 per square foot range, the cost could be challenging to either the academic budget or to the decapitalization of the Endowment. Perhaps solutions for these prospective problems have been developed. If so they should be shared with the faculty. As a non-trivial aside, one should not expect to have the City take this reduction in revenue lightly and the calls for increased payment in lieu of taxes on an ongoing basis beyond current agreements will certainly be held. In the worst-case scenario it may lead to a campaign to remove the tax exemption from educational institutions entirely.
If MIT wishes to build out the East Campus with buildings that initially may be used for commercial purposes, those buildings should be designed so that they also meet academic/research criteria, not just the most current fashion for commercial buildings. MIT has, in the past, prepared design criteria for the extension of our building system in the North and East Campus. Those criteria should be a guide for the future of the development of buildings in the East Campus.
Insisting on the prudent development of the East Campus for academic purposes will be the greatest test for the faculty. The result will determine whether or not future generations of faculty and students will have the space resources to pursue their work. Notwithstanding the current stress in research funding – something that has happened many times – the judgments that need to be made with regard to the East Campus should take the long view now so as not to cripple the Institute’s future.
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