On Feb. 25, our City Council voted unanimously to allow the construction of an oversize biolab in Central Square by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its partner, Forest City.
Less than 48 hours later, councillor David Maher, not the mayor, wrote to Forest City admitting to the “loophole” described in a letter of mine published in the previous week’s Cambridge Chronicle. He belatedly asked to please change the deal despite multiple statements in council that the deal needed no review.
But now MIT wants to rush another, 20-times-larger change to our law to expand its industrial complex by constructing giant commercial buildings on campus. MIT also wants incentives to build housing, retail and startup space using exclusions from our zoning law. This is another, much larger, loophole. Will the council hearing this Thursday provide adequate review?
MIT tells us how much their plan is improved. This is the standard developer tactic of revising an appalling initial proposal.
Just like Forest City, MIT repeatedly says how its plan has been under consideration for years. MIT tells us it should be approved right away. But at the last hearing, councillor Ken Reeves detailed how, just like the MIT/Forest City deal, MIT is getting ahead of the planning process that he had fought for.
Also at that hearing, School Committee member Fred Fantini showed real leadership by expressing “outrage” at MIT’s failure to accept any CRLS graduates despite at least five being qualified. He demanded that “MIT create a serious pathway for our children to get accepted.”
But his outrage fails to address the major issue. MIT’s plan for market rate industry and housing, increases, not decreases, the pressure that MIT is applying to our lowest-income neighborhoods, neighborhoods having our city’s highest percentage of children. MIT plans buildings that require more of their folks living in our neighborhoods and more folks commuting to campus.
Our council can do better. Force MIT to build housing that the more than 6,000 grad students and post-docs living off-campus can and will want to live in. Let MIT set rents they can afford. This frees up thousands of non-luxury neighborhood apartments that our middle-income folks can afford. Our council should make this grand bargain with MIT – a bargain that preserves, not destroys, our community.
Nobody should be able to buy changes to our laws to build bigger. But if our council is making that sale, it must take enough time to truly benefit the community.