Saturday, July 13, 2024

Students in Harvard Yard in Cambridge on March 10, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

With every student in a dorm a student not competing for housing with other Cambridge residents, it was a key concern for Planning Board members at their annual town-gown reports meeting Feb. 13 whether Harvard, MIT and Lesley were adding pressure to the city’s already tight markets.

News was mixed from Scott Walker, Cambridge’s senior manager for data services, who said there’s been a 13 percent increase in students living in dorms since 2000 and that 69 percent of Cambridge students on a degree track are housed by their university.

Yet with the student population up 20.4 percent in that time – rising by 7,142 to last year’s total 42,081 – “dormitories have not quite kept up with the rate of growth of students,” Walker said, and non-dorm affiliate housing owned and managed by the universities isn’t staying ahead of the curve.

“To the extent that Cambridge is housing more students, it is largely happening off campus,” Walker said.

Planning Board member Tom Sieniewicz wondered how Cambridge’s colleges compared with peer institutions. “We’ve got a college town across the river. How are they doing? Should we be proud that it’s 69 percent?” he asked. “Are these institutions the gold standard in terms of the number of students that they’re housing, given their overall population?”

The differences between Boston and Cambridge made it difficult for Walker to answer, and he deferred to the universities.

The city’s 2023 Town Gown Report Summary is here:

University housing

Alexandra Jacobson Offiong, director of planning services at Harvard, said that 37 percent of campus space is residential, with nearly all of its undergraduates housed and a capacity to house more than 50 percent of graduate students as well – notable for an institution of its size, she said. This contrasts with institutions such as Boston College that have far fewer on-campus undergrads and almost no graduate housing; Harvard plans even more graduate student housing on its Allston campus, she said.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also building graduate student housing, said Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship. In 2017, the school committed to adding 950 beds, and expects to open a building this fall with 676.

Joanne Kossuth spoke for Lesley, where commuter students now make up a high percentage of undergraduates and Lesley was making more housing available for graduate students. Many students are low-residency, coming to the Cambridge campus only a few times a year, she said, and the city’s summary shows that of 3,258 total students in Cambridge, only 753 are housed here. There were student protests in 2021 about unlivable campus housing spaces and food poisoning from the cafeteria, and Kossuth said the school has been working on improving that.

The other stuff

Completed construction on MIT’s East Campus in Kendall Square seen Aug. 20, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The little public comment at the meeting was not about housing pressures – and came a little out of left field. Residents Dan Lynch and Peggy Carter spoke about their unhappiness at Lesley not bringing back a senior tai chi class at Lesley’s University Hall near Porter Square. (Kossuth responded by saying that “how much construction we have going on” had led Lesley to simplify its offerings temporarily.)

More public feedback had come in directly about the former Shaking Crab space at University Hall, one of several empty storefronts that residents want to see activated, Kossuth said. Current plans there are another reversal for space empty since mid-Covid pandemic, with Kossuth saying that on-again, off-again plans to relocate food court restaurants were on again, at least for two eateries. “Those changes will happen this summer,” she said.

MIT, meanwhile, finished renovating a non-dormitory apartment building in June at 882 Main St., Lafayette Square, turning a long-empty building with six to eight small units into three affordable homes for families. Each of the three-bedroom units are leased. MIT also cut the ribbon on Sept. 19 on the federal government’s Volpe National Transportation Center building in Kendall Square and work has begun on the rest of the mixed-use 14-acre parcel around it.

Jacobson Offiong said Harvard had a “commitment to a dynamic Harvard Square” that includes a reenvisioning of 12-30 Palmer St., formerly a Coop Annex used for storing and selling textbooks. “Our intent is to reimagine the site so it will contribute to the vitality of Harvard Square and serve as a catalyst for more activation on Palmer Street,” she said.

A different dynamic

Planning Board member Ted Cohen thanked the school for making the Harvard Art Museums free and urged it to do even more to support local businesses struggling in the wake of Covid – though the school is known as one of the square’s more benevolent landlords.

At his first town-gown report as a board member, “there were probably 100 to 200 irate citizens who had their knives out ready to attack one or more of the universities for their lack of sensitivity to the community and their lack of communications with the Planning Board and with other members of city government,” Cohen said. “It is noteworthy that the universities have changed their attitude.”

Cambridge received $127 million in 2023 in payments from the universities – including $8 million in payment in lieu of taxes, made to compensate for the loss of revenue from university-owned and thus tax-exempt property in the city, as well as such things as for utilities such as water and sewer and other fees and permits.

The land owned by the institutions has been relatively steady since 2000, when it was 441 total acres they owned, of which 344 were nontaxable and 97 taxable, Walker said. It’s now 488 acres total with 371 nontaxable and 117 taxable.

The reports can be found here.

This post was updated Feb. 23, 2024, with more information on total 2023 payments to the city that includes $8 million in lieu of taxes.