Kendall Square, once a bleak, industrial backwater, is now a Cambridge hot spot. A dense cluster of biopharma labs has attracted tech giants like Google, “luxury” apartment blocks and restaurants offering oysters, tapas and serious coffee. Last week, The Boston Globe called the neighborhood “a place city dwellers, foodies and beer enthusiasts can enjoy.”
MIT also sees it another way – as an investment opportunity. The school’s Kendall Square Initiative – as outlined to the City Council in in May — calls for remaking one of the neighborhoods area’s last barren spots into “a mixed-use revitalization project.” That includes housing, retail and eight new commercial buildings to house labs and offices, which The Globe values at $2 billion.
But, opposition has emerged. This time, it is not from activist neighbors. Instead, a small group of faculty members and the Graduate Student Council have issued statements questioning the use of one of MIT’s last vacant parcels for commercial development.
Much of the debate is playing out in the Faculty Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication that biology professor Jonathan King says serves as the voice of the faculty. King is a member of the newsletter’s editorial board and one of four faculty who kicked off the public debate in December by calling for more discussion of the Kendall project. In June, a larger group of faculty singed a stronger statement entitled “Save MIT Campus Land for Academic, Not Commercial, Uses.”
He and others argue that the nature of research and education “is far too dynamic” to predict academic needs 20 in advance. Land near the MIT’s campus “is much more valuable for academic use than is land that is further away. One needs to take into account the potential non-fiscal value of land to MIT in any long-term decisions.” King said the development projects are being driven by the MIT Investment Management Company: known as MITIMCo and pronounced mitt-tim-co. The goal of that office is to make money, King said, arguing that the Kendall Square project promises to do that at the expense of the school’s academic mission.
MITIMCo manages the schools assets, including real estate. And, MIT relies on their expertise, said Martin Schmidt, MIT associate provost and a professor of electrical engineering. But, he said. “It’s academic decision-making that drives what we do.”
In an answer to the December faculty editorial, Schmidt, along with MIT VP and treasurer Israel Ruiz wrote that the school has carefully offered campus land to industry tenants in the past, with the options to transfer leased property back to MIT as needed. ( Drugmaker Novartis is currently building a 400,000-square-foot expansion on a Main Street site the company leased from MIT for 40 years. )
“The result is an innovation district able to accelerate the power of invention and innovation with an ecosystem of small inventive companies and larger research-intensive organizations that are perfectly aligned with our mission. Together, this ecosystem provides opportunities for advancing the mission of MIT, ” he wrote.
As far as community input goes, Schmidt said that the school held roughly 50 meeting with members of the campus and local communities over the past year.
“That has been good, but given the concern that’s been expressed. We need to do more,” he said.
King admits that there is no current shortage of lab or classroom space, but suggests that may change. However, there is a huge demand housing.
“Graduate student housing is an acute need: explicitly named , described and quantified by the grad student council,” King said. “They have done research they know the number of their student that have trouble paying the rents and they do not believe that MIT will raise stipends at the rate rents are increasing,”
Part 2 – Grad students speak