Opinion open letter

MIT’s proposal for a new graduate dorm on Vassar should include ground-floor public space

9534 cna letter
The CNA requests that MIT include ground-floor public and commercial space in the areas of the East and West buildings shown in purple.
Courtesy of Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association

The Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association (CNA) submitted this letter to President Reif and the MIT Campus Planning team Dec. 7, 2020.

The proposed dormitory project, sited directly across the railroad tracks from Fort Washington Park, is being designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects and financed by American Campus Communities, a speculative private developer. Their soup-to-nuts agreement with MIT includes ownership of the building (but not the land it’s to be built upon) and building operations for ten years, at which point ownership will be transferred to MIT. American Campus Communities will operate the building as a profit-motivated business during that time. The building’s neighbors in Cambridgeport want to see it serve the broader community rather than solely the developer’s bottom line.

Dear President Reif and members of the MIT Campus Planning team,

We are writing to you about MIT’s proposed Vassar Street dormitory, slated for construction directly across the railway from Fort Washington Park in our Cambridgeport neighborhood. We are grateful that MIT is living up to its commitment to build more graduate student housing. However, we are expressing a concerted request on behalf of our neighborhood for the incorporation of ground-floor public space in the design.

Specifically, we request 25,000 rentable square footage (RSF) of ground-floor public and commercial space in the areas of the East and West buildings that directly abut the Central Plaza, as labeled on the schematic design plans and indicated in purple.

The site under consideration falls partially in Zone SD-6 and partially in Zone SD-11. Both of these Special Districts, along with nearby SD-5, SD-7, SD-8, SD-9, SD-10(F), and SD-10(H), were created in 1992 as the result of a resident-driven zoning petition and ensuing negotiations with MIT. The purpose of these actions was to create opportunities for more mixed-use and active-use development for this area. Following this, the 1995 Cambridgeport Neighborhood Study Design Recommendations sought to “encourage nodes of small commercial use in significant new developments. Developments in these nodes are encouraged to be of a character similar to street corner storefronts in the rest of the neighborhood.”

A subsequent student master planning study of this immediate area, “CPORT + MIT: Envisioning the Future of MIT’s Northwest Campus in Cambridgeport” (2016), also suggested that the region between the intersection of Erie Street and Waverly Street, and Fort Washington Park — dubbed “The Hub” — be a node for public space, arts, and small commercial uses.

Crucially, Zone SD-11 specifically notes the additional permitted use of “Retail, Business and Consumer Service Establishment” as 10% of gross floor area or 25,000 square feet, whichever is lower. Situated at a rail crossing, this site will soon be sandwiched between two active community paths: the separated facility on Vassar Street and the Grand Junction Multi-Use Path. With a multitude of pedestrian and mobility routes, direct adjacency to a City-owned historic park, and hundreds of new residents, this is clearly the ideal and correct place to locate ground-level public and commercial space.

We suggest the following possibilities: student and community co-working area, art/gallery space, and light food/beverage service such as a café and associated seating.

We acknowledge the arduous nature of the zoning variance and special permit process, and we are willing to commit our support in that process if this request is met. Let’s work together to foster the growth of this part of our shared neighborhood as an active node, where residential uses, business uses, and public ground-floor uses converge.

With sincere regards, 

The Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association

Rebecca Bowie, president
Cathie Zusy, treasurer
Rachel Han, communications clerk
Luke Mitchell, recording clerk
Brittany Butler
Gabe Cira
Julia Halprin

We express the above request as a unified voice of our neighborhood. We have also heard many other concerns from our neighbors, and in the spirit of representation, we are including the most common here:

More information on the CNA can be found at its website. Members can be contacted at cambridgeportna@gmail.com.