In the next few years, visitors to Kendall Square — already considered home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of innovative companies — will find a new and revitalized streetscape, featuring a whirlwind of daytime and evening opportunities for dining, shopping, living, and recreation. With approval granted by the City of Cambridge Tuesday night, the Kendall Square innovation district will soon be home to six new buildings as well as a variety of new open spaces and retail venues.

“Over two decades — thanks to the energy, creativity, and aspirations of thousands of researchers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and companies of every size — Kendall Square has gradually evolved from a semi-industrial landscape to the one of the most remarkable hubs of innovation in the world,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “The city’s leaders have both encouraged that transformation and been strong advocates for lively and welcoming urban spaces. With their decision, the members of the Planning Board granted us the ability to make a good thing even better, so that in another 20 years, Kendall Square will be an even more magnetic, inspiring, and delightful place to live and work.” 

The approval came in a unanimous vote of the Cambridge Planning Board, providing for MIT’s special permits as part of its “Planned Unit Development” in the Kendall Square/East Campus area. Following up on a January hearing, the board’s approval marks the end of a six-year regulatory process that featured hundreds of public hearings and community meetings, and the work of several Institute task forces and committees to examine topics such as the future of the East Campus area, the housing needs of the graduate student population, and the seamless integration of academic and commercial uses to create a vibrant gateway and destination.

All in all, the plan will lead to a little more of everything in Kendall Square: more housing for both MIT students and the community, more open spaces for recreation and socializing, and more space for research and for retail businesses.

Now that the path forward has been cleared by Tuesday’s approval, these new buildings and open spaces will be built out over the course of the next decade. The new development will include a residential and retail building, as well as a major new graduate student residence hall and new buildings for research facilities. Some of these will feature dramatic views of the Charles River and the Boston skyline from their upper floors. At street level, the buildings will offer a variety of retail venues, open spaces, and new direct connections between Main Street and the campus, and to boat ramps and other activities along Broad Canal, a waterway that opens into the Charles. Each new building will go through a design review with the city before construction begins.

Ultimately, the new buildings and renovations of historical structures, and the creation of green spaces just south of Main Street in the center of Kendall Square, spanning what is now just a string of parking lots, will provide a vital street scene and a whole new entryway into the MIT campus. A new building housing the MIT Museum will provide an inviting focal point and a public introduction to the campus.

Learn about the growing innovation ecosystem of MIT and Kendall Square

Overall, the rollout of the project is expected to offer significant benefits for Cambridge, for MIT, and for the region. It will bring new housing units to one of the most sought-after parts of the city, as well as major new research and development facilities to what is already, as The Boston Globe recently described the Kendall area, “the beating heart of biotech. And if Kendall is the beating heart, then MIT must be the aorta. …” Indeed, the new facilities will provide even greater opportunities for interaction and cross-fertilization between the biotech and other high-tech companies that have flocked to the area, and the students and faculty of MIT, whose presence helped draw those companies in the first place. The intermingling of these academic and commercial communities should further enhance the already abundant opportunity for partnerships, internships, collaborations, and serendipitous meetings.

“I can imagine Kendall Square a decade from now, with the expanded capacity making it possible to realize an amplified innovation playground anchored on and around MIT,” says Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz. “A century after physically moving MIT’s campus to Cambridge, the Kendall project allows us to create a destination for both the MIT community and the Cambridge residents, an environment capable of unleashing a new era of groundbreaking discovery and economic growth across the region.”

“It is wonderful to have the approval of the Cambridge Planning Board. This culminates a long, thoughtful process that has led to an exciting vision and plan for Kendall Square,” says MIT Provost Martin Schmidt. “Early on in this process, the community had many questions, and some concerns about this project. I am delighted to see that as a result of deep engagement with our campus community and the city, we have been able to develop a Kendall Square plan that is appealing to all stakeholders.”

The close proximity of these facilities, spanning the full innovation cycle from basic academic research all the way to the marketplace, will help enable both MIT and the companies to bring about breakthrough innovations.

“It’s really exciting that we have arrived at this point,” says Steve Marsh, managing director of real estate in MIT’s Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). Marsh and MITIMCo served as the project’s lead on behalf of the Institute. “I give a lot of credit to the many people at MIT and in the city who worked diligently and thoughtfully through the twists and turns of this long-term effort. Fortunately, we were ultimately able to achieve this critical milestone in the execution of the bold vision that was set out for us by MIT leadership. We’re really pleased with the final plan, which was shaped by stakeholders throughout the broader community — that steady stream of input was crucial to our success.”

At the nearly four-hour Planning Board hearing, MIT officials presented the Institute’s plans for North of Main Street (“NoMa”) and South of Main Street (“SoMa”). Members of the public made comments about the project related to the public realm, transportation, and housing, and Planning Board members offered observations regarding transit-related matters, graduate student housing, bicycling amenities, and the future design-review process. After the Board provided its unanimous vote allowing the Kendall Square Initiative to move forward, Chairman Ted Cohen thanked everyone and said that he looked forward to working with MIT during the design review process.

The graduate housing component of the development arose from an analysis by the Graduate Student Housing Working Group. Its final report recommended adding new housing to accommodate 500 to 600 graduate students. MIT leadership determined that approximately half of that housing could be placed within the Kendall Square Initiative, and that the other half would be sited elsewhere on campus. Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart believes that the Kendall location is ideal for an addition to MIT’s graduate student housing stock. “Having our graduate students in the heart of Kendall Square, where they can interact with both academic and industry partners, will allow them even greater access to the Cambridge innovation ecosystem. Their presence will also help to enhance the vibrancy of the area.”

“Over the past two years, it has been tremendously exciting to witness the details of the Kendall development plan come into focus as the result of the efforts of so many dedicated individuals at MIT and in collaboration with the city,” says Associate Provost Karen Gleason, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser Professor of Chemical Engineering who, along with Schmidt, played a major role in addressing the interests of the many groups involved in the new project. “I am very excited about the new and lively space that will result from the juxtaposition of multiple academic enterprises on either side. The future, represented by the innovation and entrepreneurship and admissions offices, both to the east of the T stop, will be complemented by our historical roots, represented by the MIT Museum, sited directly across the gateway to the west.”

Gleason adds, “All of these activities will find use for a shared forum space, which opens to green space to the south. Additionally, MIT’s present graduate students and families will benefit from the new housing and a daycare adjacent to the T. With the approval granted by the city’s planning board, construction of this vision will finally begin.”

The six new buildings will provide a mix of about 290 affordable and market-rate housing units, 250 net new graduate-student residential units, research and development buildings, more than 100,000 square feet of new and repositioned retail space, and generous open spaces. The overall plan, as Schmidt outlined in the January presentation to the Planning Board, will provide “a vibrant crossroads that will connect us more closely to the Cambridge community.”

The project’s “vibrant crossroads” includes the opportunity for MIT to implement an inviting new public realm with a dynamic gateway and diverse programming. The objective for the open space area is to create a welcoming destination that has the everyday feel of an open house — where passers-by might come upon an interactive art installation, a participative science experiment, or an invention being tested out by students. The aim is to convey the Institute’s “MIT-ness” by highlighting innovation in its many forms so that Cambridge residents and visitors from around the world can experience the fast-paced excitement that is characteristic of Kendall Square.

Ever since the City Council’s 2013 approval of MIT’s rezoning petition, the Institute has been working to create a robust development plan for the six MIT-owned parking lots in the Kendall Square/East Campus area. Now that the overall plan has been approved, each building, and the open spaces, will go through a collaborative post-permitting design review process with the Planning Board. The six buildings are being designed by five different architectural teams.

Hashim Sarkis, MIT’s dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, and Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture, have led the Institute’s overarching design effort. Sarkis reflects on the ongoing design process: “Working closely and organically with the five architectural teams, we developed a foundational approach of diversity and unity. Our core urban design principles will allow every building to stand uniquely on its own while also conveying that each is a part of the larger vibrant ensemble. All of the buildings will feel connected to one another and will contribute to the vitality of this new destination that we are all creating.”

“I am grateful to the Cambridge and MIT communities for their dedication and immense contributions to the extensive public process over the past six years. We will continue this engagement into the future,” says Ruiz.

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