New Building Process Worries Local Board; Traffic is Major Issue

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article gives an incorrect affiliation for Michael K. Owu ’86. He is Director of Real Estate for the MIT Investment Management Company; he is not the Director of the Center for Real Estate. The Center for Real Estate is an academic center associated with the School of Architecture and Planning; the MITIMCo manages the financial resources of the Institute.

MIT is meeting resistance from neighborhood residents as it hopes to construct a new building at 650 Main Street, a parking lot diagonally across from Tech Square. The 400,000-square-foot project will come before the Cambridge Planning Board on Tuesday, Mar. 3, amidst concerns from the Area 4 Neighborhood Coalition (A4NC) that it will bring additional vehicular traffic to the area and integrate poorly with the neighborhood.

The current plans call for the building to be commercial, with space leased to outside parties. The ground floor will contain retail space, while the upper floors will be able to accommodate either laboratories or offices.

Sarah Gallop, of the Office of Government and Community Relations, indicated that MIT has been working with the A4NC since October, meeting with them on at least four occasions to solicit feedback and refine the plans for the building. Director of the Center for Real Estate Michael K. Owu ’86 said the A4NC’s concerns were not a surprise due to MIT’s continued interaction with community members.

“The feedback we received from the neighbors,” Owu said, “is similar to what they’ve stated in their letters to the Planning Board and City Council.”

The number of parking spots in the facility and the additional road traffic they will encourage is one of the A4NC’s primary concerns. The site is currently occupied by a 272-space parking lot, but the proposed building would have either 650 or 820 spaces if designated for lab or office space, respectively; there would be an underground parking facility in both situations. The A4NC considers the latter number too high, especially considering the site’s proximity to bus routes and the Kendall and Central T stops. Further, even though the coalition does not take issue with the ongoing construction closer to campus, there are concerns that the parking in the plans for 650 Main Street fails to consider the spaces created by those other projects.

“We would hope MIT would look at parking as a campus-wide issue rather than a per-building issue,” said A4NC member Sarah Roszler MCP ’05. Gallop and Owu, meanwhile, counter that the parking estimates are in line with estimates provided by the City of Cambridge. Owu notes that those estimates even consider a ten-percent reduction in single-occupant vehicular traffic to the area.

Despite that, Roszler hopes the city would consider the proximity to public transit when making their estimates.

“We want any development near the T to recognize the access to public transportation,” said Roszler. The A4NC is aiming for 650 parking spaces with the new building, although it still feels the site’s location would work well with fewer spots.

There was also debate over an MIT-owned parking lot located at the corner of Cherry and School Streets and associated with a building formerly run by Polaroid at 750 Main Street. The lot has remained largely unused since Polaroid’s departure at the beginning of the decade and Minka VanBeuzekom, who also works with the A4NC, says members of the community would prefer the site be used for community needs. However, Gallop noted that the lot, located three blocks from 650 Main Street, is entirely separate from this proposed project. The Institute has informed the coalition that they will continue to speak with city officials on the future of the lot until a decision has been made regarding the fate of the former Polaroid building.

“We wouldn’t want to give the parking lot away until we decide what to do with 750,” said Gallop.

Other concerns surround the size of the building, which is estimated at a height of 120 feet. According to Roszler, a building that tall would cast shadows on the adjacent residences in the middle of the day during the winter. Were the building, said Roszler, to have one fewer floor, that problem would be alleviated.

Owu says the building will welcome the community in, with nearly thirty percent of the property being covered in open spaces in the form of plazas and grassy areas.

“The overall amount of open space on the site is approximately 29 percent,” said Owu, “almost twice the amount suggested in the city’s design guidelines.” The design of the building would also encourage pedestrians to walk through the development as a shortcut from Main Street to Portland Street and Albany Street. However, Roszler counters that the green space would not be easily visible from the street. While she understands that the geography of the location makes a green space adjacent to Main Street infeasible, she notes that the green space as it is now is designed more for the tenants of the proposed building rather than the community as a whole. Architects have responded to some of these concerns by adding awnings along the sidewalk and including a glass façade. The plan also calls for trees, benches, and sidewalks larger than normal.

“The retail uses on Main Street will create a more active street edge that further enhances the pedestrian experience,” said Owu.

The A4NC has overall felt that MIT has not been fully upholding its commitment to environmental friendliness, but a recent decision has allayed some of those worries.

The U.S. Green Building Council has developed a set of standards, known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, that have been used to evaluate the environmental sustainability of more than 14,000 buildings worldwide. MIT was initially only going to seek a “certified” LEED rating for 650 Main Street, but they recently decided to obtain the higher “silver” rating, in line with its academic buildings currently under construction.

MIT will face the Cambridge Planning Board at the Department of Cambridge Community Development (344 Broadway) on Tuesday, Mar. 3, at 7:30 p.m. Both MIT and the A4NC will consider their next steps after Tuesday’s meeting, which is open to the public, but the coalition, despite its lingering concerns, has already committed to continuing working with MIT.

“We’ll continue to talk to them regardless of the outcome,” said VanBeuzekom.