MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 3
January / February 2016
Improving Faculty Governance
For Changing Times
Is This Really Who We Are?
Constraints on Civilian R&D Budgets
From Excessive Pentagon Spending
The Roles of the Standing Committees of the Faculty in the Governance of MIT
Introducing Sandbox
A Critical Look at the Plan
for MIT's East Campus
Our Faculty Agenda
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version

A Critical Look at the Plan
for MIT's East Campus

O. R. Simha

Planning Principals

Much of the discussion about the East Campus so far has been about feel-good things. An exciting addition to the Kendall Square eco system; a new source of Endowment income; a promise of an increase in tax revenue for the City; preservation of historical anecdotes; graduate student housing; and so on. But lost in the discussion has been the central question: Shouldn’t the use of the East Campus be for the creation of buildings that enhance the flexibility and ease of academic uses for the long-term future?

The most successful of MIT buildings, including the main group, have been those interconnected both above and below ground, giving MIT the ability to move quickly in response to changing research and educational needs. Where we have diverted from this system-building tradition, the buildings have failed to meet MIT’s academic and research needs. Tall buildings isolate people and reduce the flexibility of easy expansion and or contraction; horizontal buildings, with plenty of daylight, encourage communication and continue a powerful tradition of shared community.

The prior plans for the East Campus have always featured the extension of the MIT building system from the Main campus to the Sloan campus, underground parking and service, retail services at street level, generous open space, tree-lined streets, a pedestrian- and cycle-safe environment, and residential uses at the eastern end of the campus. The faculty should insist that any plan for the East Campus respect those guidelines.

Indeed, a faculty committee under the chair of Professor Kochan made similar recommendations when the implications of the MITIMCo (MIT Investment Management Company) real estate development group’s plan first emerged. A careful look at the result of the MITIMCo building plan now being presented to the Cambridge Planning Board for approval reveals quite a different picture.

Notwithstanding the acceptance of a primary change in land use from academic and research to commercial uses for the area south of Main Street (enshrined by both commitments made by the City of Cambridge and MIT to the federal government to reserve this area for the natural growth of MIT, as well as the Cambridge Planning Board’s own designation in the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance of this area as an “Institutional Zone”), this proposal requires very close scrutiny, because it is rife with bad planning, bad design, and illusory benefits.


There are two distinct areas that are being proposed for development under MIT’s sponsorship: the area north of Main Street identified as NOMA (North of Main), and the area south of Main Street (SOMA).

NOMA was originally proposed to be developed as another office building, but under pressure from the East Cambridge Community and in exchange for their support of the larger projects south of Main Street, the real estate group at MITIMCo elected to convert this site to a primarily residential project. (This 416,000 gross square foot building, 250 feet in height, will provide 285,000 feet for 290 units whose average size will be under 1,000 square feet. The project sponsor has provided no description of the unit types and sizes, with the exception of the micro units which they describe as “innovation housing” – the latest euphemism for a tiny studio apartment.

The City requires that a small portion of these units be set aside for “affordable housing” and the project meets the City’s requirements. The bulk of the units will be market rate housing and if the current pattern continues, many MIT students will be renting units in this building at market rates. There is no indication of the proposed rent structure for both market and affordable units. Comparable rental housing at Third Square on Third Street, one block away, charges over $2,600 for a studio apartment, $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, $4,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, and from $5,000 to $6,000 for a three-bedroom apartment. It is heavily occupied by MIT graduate students at Sloan as well as young professionals working in the Kendall Square area.

The plan indicates that parking space will be offered in the building garage at market rates. Given that current and expected market rates for parking in this area are $250/per month and above, one might ask why some of these units are not leased by the MIT housing system and offered at discounted rates to the MIT community. Almost every department at MIT has been embarrassed by the lack of housing for visiting faculty; here is a chance to correct that need.

If this project should proceed as is, it would lack usable open space for over 300 new residents and their families who will clearly place an increased burden on public facilities. Where will residents access public open space and recreation areas? How will young families with small children access safe and usable open space? As part of its obligation to support these needs, will MIT contribute to the development of the new Kendall Square Park at Broadway and Third Street, as proposed by the winner of the City’s competition?

The response on the need for a more effective connection from NOMA to the Southside of Main Street and the Sloan Campus seems below the standard to which MIT should aspire. The current proposal of a disjointed surface crossing where pedestrians are screened from speeding traffic by landscape materials will not be adequate. It will, in fact, create a false sense of security since there do not appear to be any traffic controls proposed to stop fast-moving traffic for pedestrians crossing at this point. Such controls exist only at the corner of Broadway and Third Street. Why does MIT not propose and help to fund a handsome pedestrian bridge across this always-busy roadway that would provide safe passage and could also act as a gateway to the City?

With regard to the overall need for housing in the City, MITIMCo’s plan assumes the demolition of Eastgate graduate student housing, which was built in 1965 as an expression of MIT’s faith in the future of Kendall Square, and now offers apartments for rent from $1500-$1900 per month. Further, there is no mention of the disposition of other existing buildings in the south of Main Street area. Will MIT commit to retaining and rehabbing the 270 units at 100 Memorial Drive for MIT housing needs upon the completion of the current leasehold?

MIT Kendall Square SOMA Project
(click on image to enlarge)










The area South of Main Street (SOMA) is planned as a Mixed Use district. There are many questions about the MIT plan for the area that have gone unanswered. Let’s begin with traffic and street work issues that include:

• Amherst Street. Why is this missing from the list of streets to be improved? What happened to the MIT plan, approved by the Cambridge Traffic Department in the 1990s, to widen the sidewalks on Amherst Street as was done as part of the N51Tang Center project near Wadsworth Street? What will the new volumes of parkers and service vehicles mean to the Amherst Street environs? How will the Wadsworth Street intersection at Memorial Drive, Amherst Street, and Main Street accommodate all of the new traffic that this project envisions without a serious decline in safety for pedestrians and cyclists?

• Why isn’t the entry for service vehicles and underground parking consolidated at the entrance to the Sloan garage and brought underground to service all of the buildings in the Planned Unit Development (PUD)? This would reduce the traffic/pedestrian conflicts on Ames, Hayward, and Carleton Streets. A prior MIT plan for this area anticipated such a solution, and thereby was able to provide more usable open space for both the public and the MIT community. The present plan is a step backward, also acknowledging more vehicle/pedestrian conflicts that were never described in earlier public meetings for the MIT community.

• Why is there no direct access below grade to the MBTA station platform from both existing MIT buildings and the new buildings proposed? This would assist patrons in all weather and provide for more humane accommodation to persons with disabilities.

• While MIT must be given some credit for funding a traffic study which surveyed prospective use of the Redline station, there does not appear to be any proposals in this submission that suggest the need to work with other developers to ensure that the transportation plan will reflect other proposals that are making their way down the pipeline. It has been reported that Boston Properties, in addition to the recently authorized increased development of an additional million square feet in the MXD District, plans to replace the low density Coop building with another tower. Do we know what the impact of that addition, should it be approved, will have on the present Kendall Station? Will the Coop, in the future, be accommodated by MIT in Kendall Square?

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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.

Financial Implications

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.

What can be done?

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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