Redevelopment of Volpe Site
Offers MIT Rare Opportunity
The announcement that MIT has been designated to redevelop the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center site is very good news. That is, if the MIT administration realizes that the Institute has been given the rarest of gifts in life – a second chance to correct a major mistake – and revises the plans for the Kendall Square area in a manner that prioritizes the academic mission of MIT over the narrow investment priorities of the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). With the availability of the huge and valuable Volpe site, there should be plenty of room to prioritize the land on the MIT West side of Kendall Square for academic uses, especially graduate student housing.
Let's review the largest flaws in the current MIT Kendall plan:
First, MIT originally acquired the Kendall land when it was inexpensive and in the process of being abandoned by the earlier industrial users. MIT committed to use that land for academic purposes, not just in news releases, but also in legal agreements with the City of Cambridge and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It may, unfortunately, be accepted practice among real estate developers to change public benefit commitments when it is financially convenient, but one would hope that a prestigious university would hold itself to a higher standard than, "if we can get away with it, it must be ok."
Second, as was documented by the MIT Graduate Student Council a few years ago, there is a severe shortage of affordable graduate student housing on or near campus at MIT. At least 4000 graduate students and postdocs, who are essential to the educational and research mission of MIT, are being dumped into the fiercely expensive rental housing market in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston. This is clearly to the detriment of the students, who are spending too much money on rent, too much energy dealing with unscrupulous landlords trying to game an overheated market, and too much time commuting; as well as to the detriment of the communities which are experiencing very significant gentrification pressures. The MIT land near Kendall is a perfect place to serve part of this need – essentially on campus, but also near an exciting growing urban hot spot that would be an exciting place to live for graduate students and potentially junior faculty.
Third, there may well be other academic uses that ought to be considered for some of this land. But because MIT has outsourced its planning function to MITIMCo, which acts like a private developer, there is not a coherent long-range plan documenting the need for laboratory, library, and classroom space over the next several decades, now that it is clear that MIT is located in an area of very limited additional land. There ought to be a planning function that looks to secure the physical development needs of the academic institution over the next several decades, that would prioritize the use of Institute land for academic purposes – which is not the dominant driver of MITIMCo decision-making.
The current MITIMCo plan includes a parking garage for over 1000 cars within a half-block of the Kendall Square T station, costing over $100 million (based on the recent experience with the Sloan School underground parking). It is hard to believe that, adjacent to the center of federal research on innovative transportation technology, guidance from leading experts on automobile technology and policy to "stop building new parking" given the emerging capabilities and disruptive potential of autonomous vehicles, would be disregarded.
The current plan also proposes to locate a commercial office building and a commercial laboratory on MIT land adjacent to Main Street and the Kendall-MIT T stop, presumably for real estate profit motives. But these are activities that would be much more appropriate on the newly available Volpe site, leaving the Main Street sites available for academic purposes such as graduate student and junior faculty housing.
Private companies such as Google and Microsoft, names that are suggested as possible tenants for the proposed MITIMCo plan, have an extremely different culture than is appropriate for an academic campus. They prioritize proprietary ownership of ideas and non-disclosure, while the academic spirit of open inquiry in the interest of society is the priority of the Institute.
Recently, with the new administration in the White House, we have been proud of the principled stance taken by President Reif and other MIT leadership to protect our community and all its members from the hateful intervention of the most powerful government in the world. This is a reminder of the quintessential importance of the balance of power among the federal government, the states, the private sector, and especially academic institutions, and of how academic institutions must protect the spirit of free and open inquiry. By blurring the distinction between the private sector and academic culture, the current Kendall Square plan erodes the campus' fundamental role in making the Institute's spaces a sanctuary for the free and open exchange of ideas.
The designation of MIT to develop the Volpe site gives the Institute an amazing second chance – an opportunity to prioritize the land originally purchased for academic purposes near Main Street for those academic purposes, while placing valid but culturally inconsistent private activities on the Volpe land, along with affordable housing, to make up for the gentrification pressures that past activities of MIT have imposed on our host community.
MIT should take advantage of this rare opportunity to secure its academic priorities in the rapidly diminishing land available to the Institute.