Thursday, July 18, 2024

On Monday the City Council voted to approve a petition from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to transform 26 acres of property it owns around Kendall Square at Main Street and 1 Broadway. Seven councillors voted to approve the petition. One councilor abstained from voting. I voted against the petition.

This is a worthy petition, and the projected development brings exciting opportunities for positive change in Kendall Square. I ultimately voted against the petition because I feel that together Cambridge and MIT can do more. Three areas in which this petition needed improvement are housing, net-zero energy standards and noise levels.

Build housing for graduate students and workers

Many residents and former transportation secretary Fred Salvucci expressed concerns that a lack of MIT-provided housing for graduate students has the effect of forcing graduate students into the neighborhoods to rent available apartments – in turn pushing rental pricing up and a diverse community out. In the previous century, MIT was very engaged in helping the city create housing: LBJ, Corporal Burns and a senior building in East Cambridge were financed and built by MIT. Keys were handed over to the Cambridge Housing Authority. The city-sponsored Goody-Clancy study of Kendall Square confirmed a great need for residential housing. Twenty-five hundred new jobs in Kendall will exacerbate the need. With this petition existed the opportunity to request MIT provide a significant housing commitment (in the 2,000- to 4,000-unit range). We are now left with an “MIT study” on this topic. The approximately 300 housing units that this petition requires do not ensure the success of small retailers near Main and Third streets. Without the promise of foot traffic seven days of week, the mix of retailers and restaurateurs will likely be geared toward the weekday workforce.

Establish net-zero energy usage standard for buildings

Cambridge and MIT can be leaders by using building standards that address the climate crisis. MIT is one of the few institutions today that can make net-zero energy usage buildings a reality – this institution is at the forefront of creation. Using technology, engineering, equipment efficiencies, building standards and the purchase of renewable energy credits insures that the climate is protected. MIT’s new Sloan Business School building was built to use one-third the amount of energy of a similarly-sized building, and a MIT joint-venture building project in Switzerland achieved net-zero energy standards. These standards are achievable in Cambridge, and MIT, the self-acclaimed inventor of the future, is a clear leader. The net-zero energy usage amendment I submitted failed 4-4-1.

Keep the city noise standards at a livable level

As Cambridge grows and shifts, neighborhoods and industry will coexist in mixed-use districts. The MIT petition approves an increase to the 50-decibel sound level allowed for night-time noise. The new allowable limit will increase to 65 decibels for new commercial construction. There are more than 700 residents living in or next to this new zoning district, and they deserve to enjoy a reasonable level of quiet. Allowing an increase in level will add to the ambient noise in the city, in turn making compliance more difficult. The reduced noise standards amendment I submitted failed 4-5.

Many aspects of MIT’s petition are appealing to me. Repurposing surface-level parking lots into opportunities for first-floor retail, making space for affordable startups and innovation companies, the potential for middle-income housing and new low parking ratios are all great things for Cambridge. So too, is a strong commitment to use local union labor and grow the city’s revenues, which ultimately keep taxes low for residents and business alike.

The City Council has an obligation to ask that good projects become great projects. The council has the opportunity to work with all Cambridge stakeholders and the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in endeavors that are bold and praiseworthy. Such opportunities are far and few between.

Minka vanBeuzekom, MPH, city councillor