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Between Town and Gown

In recent years the relationship between MIT and the city of Cambridge has grown more collaborative and cordial.

When a new graduate residence hall opened last fall at 70 Pacific Street in Cambridgeport, the students held an open house. They invited the campus community and the neighborhood’s residents to share dinner, friendly conversation, and guided tours of the building. About 130 residents attended, including Cambridge vice mayor Henrietta Davis, who arrived with a prepared speech that exhorted the students to be better neighbors. But after spending time with them, Davis confessed she couldn’t give her speech: the students were, she said, already doing an incredible job of reaching out to the community. Today, Davis says, those graduate residents are the Institute’s “best ambassadors” to the city. In fact, she says, virtually everything about the residence hall signals a new day in the relationship between MIT and Cambridge.

In the past, that relationship has been fraught with difficulty and, sometimes, outright hostility. “There’s friction on every issue because we have different views,” says Sarah Gallop, codirector of MIT’s Office of Government and Community Relations. “It’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact of life.” Thorny issues like zoning, planning, housing, transportation, parking, recycling, environmental impact, the local educational system, and, perhaps the thorniest of all, taxes arise regularly. MIT and Cambridge have negotiated their way around them all, with the city capable of stalling or stopping MIT projects. But in recent years the relationship has evolved toward what city and campus officials alike characterize as a very comfortable association.

According to people on both sides of the fence, increased communication and broadened outreach have been key to this evolution, and the Town and Gown Team, established on campus three years ago, has been instrumental in facilitating this improved interaction between the Institute and Cambridge government officials. On the outreach side, MIT has set up more opportunities for students to help in the community, through expanded volunteer programs, new service learning courses, fellowships that enable students to work with community nonprofit organizations, and a competition for funding specific projects that students develop with local nonprofit agencies. And MIT’s increasing commitment to recycling and other environmental issues has also strengthened its relationship with the city. But while the present climate is better than it has been in more than a decade, any single issue could trigger a relapse of the more contentious relationship of years past. “We need to keep looking for more structured ways to communicate,” says John Curry, executive vice president of MIT and head of the Town and Gown Team. “We need to keep the door open.” 

The Evolving Relationship

In the past, the strains between Cambridge and the Institute were rooted in mutual distrust. “City residents and officials were saying, You’re not talking to us. You’re not telling us what you’re doing,’” says Gallop. “We were thinking, If we tell you what we’re doing, you’re going to keep it from happening, so why should we tell you?’”

By the time Deborah Poodry, director of capital project development in MIT’s facilities department, arrived in 2000, the distrust had reached a new level. “When I came here, the city’s attitude was hostile,” she says. “There was a supposition that MIT was not to be trusted, that we were going to lie to them.” In contrast, Poodry characterizes the current relationship as cooperative and based on mutual respect. Davis agrees but adds, “We don’t always agree on what should happen.”

Many attribute the turnaround in the relationship directly to the Town and Gown Team, whose genesis coincided with the start of MIT’s construction boom in 1999, which precipitated  an unprecedented volume of communication between MIT and the city. “It used to be that our office was the only one that spoke to the city,” says Gallop, “but all of a sudden we were all talking to Cambridge about everything in the universe.” 

It quickly became clear that organized communication was needed, and the Town and Gown Team was established to spearhead the effort. Headed by Curry, the group includes Steven Marsh, MIT’s managing director of real estate, Paul Parravano, codirector of the Institute’s Office of Government and Community Relations, Poodry, Gallop, and various members of their staffs. They meet twice a month to discuss and coordinate strategy, and to make sure they are giving the city consistent messages. “We don’t make a move without each other,” Gallop says.

According to Curry, Town and Gown has succeeded in taking “multiple groups who have relationships with the city, pooled our thoughts and weighed our needs and the city’s needs. We have a very big stake in the success of the city.” The group has smoothed the path for planning board approvals, licensing, and permitting. In addition to the group’s plenary meetings, a subgroup also meets weekly with the Cambridge Department of Public Works to provide continual construction updates, and a Web site devoted to campus construction and renovations has kept the public informed.

Today, openness characterizes MIT’s attitude toward the city. “MIT is a benefit to the community, but you can’t pretend that it’s all positive because it isn’t,” says Gallop. “There’s traffic, there are students who might be loud, there’s construction. But then there’s the economic impact, our volunteerism, our work in the schools, sharing of our facilities-and the financial resources and expertise we provide the city.” That openness has gone a long way toward developing a spirit of cooperation between Cambridge and MIT.

The Double-edged Sword

MIT’s role in the city’s success is undeniable. Its presence alone has stimulated commercial growth in Cambridge and contributed to the city’s renown as one of the leading technology centers in the world. Marsh, who is responsible for buying and renting MIT’s commercial space, says being close to campus appeals to companies because it creates a collaborative environment in which they can apply basic science to their cutting-edge products. “They need to be near the source of idea generation,” he points out. It’s no surprise, then, that more than 70 biotech companies are now located within one mile of campus. And it’s also the major reason, Marsh says, that MIT has invested so heavily in commercial properties adjacent to campus. Today, the Institute is the city’s single biggest landowner, and its commercial real-estate holdings, on which it pays taxes, have made it the city’s largest taxpayer. Last year, the Institute paid $9.2 million in taxes on nonacademic properties and was responsible for generating another $5.9 million from commercial properties on leased MIT-owned land.

Although the Institute had been slowly adding to its real-estate portfolio over the last decade, its 2001 purchase of Technology Square, a complex of commercial buildings in Kendall Square, set off warning bells around Cambridge. That purchase bumped MIT’s share of the city’s property tax base to about 8.7 percent. Since Cambridge derives more than half of its income from the commercial sector, the purchase sent the anxiety level of city councilors and residents soaring: as a tax-exempt nonprofit, MIT pays no taxes on most of the holdings it uses for educational purposes. Thus, if it converts any of its commercial holdings to academic use, those properties could come off the city’s tax rolls.

Mayor Michael Sullivan notes that 51 percent of the city’s property is now held by tax-exempt entities. If MIT were to convert a substantial portion of its commercial space to academic use, he says, the loss of revenue for the city would be staggering. In an effort to head off this loss, the city is seeking assurances from MIT that it will continue paying taxes for a specified period of time on any commercial property it converts to educational use. “The city is looking for a long-term agreement-50 years at the least,” councilman David Maher said last spring in a program on Cambridge Community TV.

Marsh says the city need not worry: it is in MIT’s own financial interest to maintain the properties’ commercial status. “MIT relies on the income flow from these properties to support operations,” he says. “It’s essentially part of our endowment, and it needs to generate returns.” 

But the city is not mollified. Since the purchase of Tech Square, the two entities have been renegotiating a long-standing arrangement, known as the “payment in lieu of taxes agreement,” which specifies how much the Institute will voluntarily pay on its academic property. In 2002, the figure was $1.1 million. In the revised agreement, the city wants to include a provision that would commit MIT to paying taxes for a prespecified number of years on any commercial property it converts to academic use. At press time, no compromise had been reached, but a final agreement is expected soon. 

The Spirit of Public Service

MIT has a long history of public service to the community. In 1991, when Charles M. Vest HM became president, those efforts began to grow significantly. “I think it comes straight from Chuck [Vest],” says Gallop. “He says we have a responsibility to provide service, and that’s what we are doing.”

In the last three years or so, several new initiatives supported by the Public Service Center have been designed to meet this responsibility. An expanded fellowship program funds students to work full time in nonprofit agencies during the Independent Activities Period in January and during the summer. Last year, the center spent $80,000 of privately donated money to support about 30 students in January and another 10 last summer. Sally Susnowitz, director of the center, says they could have placed others had more money been available.

Last spring, in partnership with the Edgerton Center, the center established the IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, Service) Competition, which awarded $22,000 to six student-initiated projects that addressed community needs. One of the six was an outgrowth of Graduate Volunteer Day, an orientation program in its third year that pairs graduate student volunteers with local agencies for a day. Eight students found themselves at the Salvation Army homeless shelter, where, while scrubbing floors, they talked with staff members about the shelter’s technology infrastructure needs. Most of all, they were told, the shelter needed a way to track the services it provides the homeless. The grad students tackled the problem and came up with a Palm Pilot with a scanner attached. They then provided each homeless person with a bar code card. Every time a person uses a shelter service, whether a shower, a hot meal, or a bed, the card is scanned and the information goes into a database that tracks the services provided. This information not only helps the shelter focus its services, but it also provides valuable documentation for potential funding agencies.

Another innovative effort supported by the two centers encourages faculty to incorporate public service into their classes. The idea behind this “service learning” program is that students learn their course material by working on community projects that closely match their curricula. Students in Eric Klopfer’s teacher education program, for example, must spend one to three hours a week per semester for three semesters in a science or math classroom in Cambridge schools observing and helping the teachers. Many of the course’s assignments are based on what happens in those classrooms. Program coordinator Amy Banzaert acknowledges that some faculty had previously incorporated service learning into their courses, but notes that it is now a structured and funded program, with guidelines and professional staff to support it.

ome slightly older but still evolving educational programs are the direct result of the 1998 finding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that MIT was not in compliance with some government regulations. In lieu of paying a fine, MIT has partnered with Cambridge public schools to develop new environmental-education programs. In fact, the EPA hopes that MIT’s programs will serve as a model for other schools.

In recent years, MIT has stepped up its recycling efforts. In response to the city’s Climate Action Plan, the Institute has agreed to recycle 40 percent of its waste by 2005. MIT has a long way to go: it now recycles only 17 percent of its waste. Dan Winograd, environmental counsel for MIT, says the Institute is examining its current recycling efforts and making modifications to improve its performance. MIT is also undertaking several new programs, including recycling books, student furniture, and demolition debris (96 percent of Building E10 was recycled when it was torn down last year), replacing some of the Styrofoam and plastic in dining halls with reusable china and flatware, and encouraging offices and departments to purchase recycled materials.

But perhaps the most visible of MIT’s public-service efforts are the more than 50 programs it supports that engage the Institute in science and math education in Cambridge’s public schools. Parravano initiated the relationship with the schools in the early 1990s. Melanie Barron, science coordinator for the Cambridge school district, describes the Institute’s presence as pervasive: it brings MIT students into classrooms, provides support to service departments of the district, and offers summer classes to help teachers keep abreast of new content. Most of all, Barron says, the MIT connection gives Cambridge schoolteachers a “way to stay alive intellectually.” 

Still, city officials would like to see more. Mayor Sullivan is interested in new programs that would help alleviate the achievement gaps among students. And Councilman Maher says the school system and the Institute could coordinate their efforts better than they do now, perhaps through a master plan for improving the schools.

As much as the relationship between MIT and Cambridge has improved in recent years, both sides recognize that maintaining it will require significant effort. “The smart thing for us to do and for the civic leaders in Cambridge is to find out what benefits there are and maximize them for the citizens,” says Parravano. “Where there are problems, or perceived problems, we need to be sure those things are talked about and negotiated and worked out in a way that is acceptable to everybody.”

Mayor Sullivan agrees. “We should be willing to work with others to make things better,” he says. “I don’t think they can just continue to give us stuff. At some point there has to be some recognition that we are all neighbors, that we’re all contributing to the larger community.”

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