Community reacts to plan for Kendall

Questions raised over revitalization proposal

Cambridge City Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves expressed deep misgivings over MIT’s plan to revitalize Kendall Square at this month’s Town Gown meeting, saying that MIT’s motives in the project may be driven by profit and that the Institute lacks expertise in building community spaces.

MIT dominated the discussion at the annual meeting between university and Cambridge City officials. The meeting, which began as a series of updates from MIT, Harvard, and Lesley University to the City’s Planning Board, ended with statements from three city councilors and the Planning Board on MIT’s preliminary plans to redevelop Kendall with 1.1 million square feet of new retail, office, lab, and residential buildings, clustered primarily around the Kendall T-station. Some councilors and planning board members expressed skepticism over MIT’s ability to truly remake Kendall into a place where people can gather.

Councillor Reeves and members of the Planning Board have previously voiced concerns with MIT’s process and vision for Kendall, and they repeated those sentiments at Town Gown.

Reeves told the Planning Board and community audience that MIT’s concern with its real estate holdings — like those in Kendall — is “how much money can [they] make?” and that how MIT’s investment property contributes to the community is “of no concern to [MIT].”

“We’re being developed by entities whose bottom line is profit, not people or ease of access,” said Reeves.

But Steven C. Marsh, Managing Director for Real Estate of the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo), says that MIT’s motivations in Kendall are the continued development of the area into an “innovation cluster,” with the intent of attracting scientific talent and preserving Cambridge’s global competitiveness.

“The big motivation behind this is growing the innovation culture in Cambridge,” says Marsh, who manages MIT’s investment property in Cambridge.

Reeves did not spell out specific concerns with MIT’s Kendall proposal, but he cited MIT’s efforts — joint with Forest City Boston — to develop the University Park area south of Central Square as a failure of the Institute to consider the Cambridge community’s needs.

“We were happy it was built,” said Reeves of University Park, “but it doesn’t work as a people place. People don’t seem to go there unless they have to go there.”

The Councillor said he was especially concerned that the Institute’s lack of “place-making strength” would be reflected in a Kendall development project, a fear which was echoed by some members of the Planning Board.

Marsh says that while building a culture of innovation and attracting talent to Kendall is key, “we recognize that it’s really important for people to have places to gather and places to connect.”

“We want to make sure we’re doing things that are going to meet the legitimate needs of all the people in our community — but they also have to be viable,” Marsh explained. “We can’t do things that are going to redirect funding for cancer research into something that is a desire of the community that isn’t necessarily mission-driven,” he added, referring to the Institute’s directive to advance research and teaching.

Marsh believes that the Kendall initiative is a “win-win” situation, where MIT can meet its goals of advancing innovation, but also create a sense of community.

At Town Gown, Councillor Reeves also targeted a lack of transparency among MIT’s senior leadership: “It seems like the presidents of Harvard and MIT are in China and India, but they are not talking to government in Cambridge.”

City Councillor Leland Cheung G, who spoke after Reeves, reaffirmed the need for strong communication between MIT and city government. “When Reeves was talking about the need for [City government] to interact with the heads of universities … that is one point I want to underscore, it is absolutely critical,” stated Cheung. “It is absolutely imperative we have an abundance of communication.”

Sarah E. Gallop, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations, says that the Institute’s 10-month-old Kendall plan has been entirely transparent.

“We did two rounds of outreach. First, in the spring, we saw every city councillor, city staff, all the neighborhood organizations that abut the Kendall Square area.” After refining their plans during the summer, “we went back out, and did the whole thing again.” Gallop emphasizes that the urban renewal plan was still in its early stages, and that no formal decisions have been made.

MIT had previously expected to propose zoning changes in January, but held off when the City announced it was seeking a consultant to run a planning study for the area from Kendall to Central Square, partially in response to concerns raised over MIT’s vision for the region. Besides Kendall, the planning study will look at Novartis’ planned expansion at 177 Mass. Ave., MIT and Forest City’s new partnership at 300 Mass. Ave., and the health of Central Square. The City has received ten bids for the consulting job, and Gallop says MIT is fully supportive of the study process.

The timeline of the Kendall project will likely depend on the progress of the planning study. Currently, no plans have been formalized, and MIT is still soliciting input to help shape the goals of the renewal.

In addition to Kendall, Reeves voiced concerns over MIT’s plans to develop the block of Massachusetts Avenue between Blanche and Landsdowne Streets — the area just north of Random Hall — in partnership with Forest City. Reeves says MIT may be building new sections of the city that “don’t work for the people.” MIT’s prior venture with Forest City at University Park had concerned the Councillor.

However, Marsh notes that several complexities in the planning process for the University Park development may explain why the area fails to live up to the standards Councillor Reeves was hoping for. University Park was designed to not detract from Central Square, Marsh explained, and limitations on retail in the area were built in to the zoning.

“What exists [at University Park] today is exactly what the community said [it] wanted there,” adds Gallop, who says that the planning process heavily involved Cambridge City Council and neighborhood organizations.

Ultimately, Gallop felt that MIT’s community engagement process ran counter to Reeves’ assertions at Town Gown. “I sincerely doubt there’s any proponent of any project out there who’s done as much outreach as we have,” she said.

For Kendall, Gallop says that MIT’s plans are still formative. Right now, she says, “we just have an idea.”