vacant lot

THE MISSING TOOTH

For five decades, MIT has been trying to grant its students safe passage along what Simha calls "the dark distance between MIT and Central." Simha, who attended college at MIT in the 1950s, remembers when the area went south. "Once night fell, it was dark, and it could be quite scary. It offered itself up to those types who were looking for a lonely student who was an easy mark.

"When I was going to school, Central Square had a movie house and all kinds of things that made for a much more diverse population," he says. "Then the old commercial life of the area died off. All of Cambridge was going through major economic and social changes back in the '50s, as the industrial economy was reaching the end. We had most of the industries supporting the city going out of business and leaving a hollow shell of what had been a very active industrial hub. Central Square itself went through a long depression."

In 1970, when the Simplex Wire and Cable Company closed its Mass Ave factory, it left a 27-acre dead zone next to the MIT campus. Simha was instrumental in repurposing it. In 1988, the university partnered with the Cleveland-based, multi-billion-dollar real-estate management and development corporation Forest City Enterprises to build University Park.

"When we took over the site, we had maintenance workers who would pick up the trash," recalls Kathryn Brown. "It was just like a dump."

"University Park initiative was the first example of a mixed-use development [in the greater Boston area]," Simha says. "There are very few examples of where all of those activities were mandated simultaneously so that the labs, hotels, and shopping facilities all had to be developed in a coordinated way."

AllAsia block

The demolition and reconstruction of the All Asia block is the final step in that development. "It's been a long time in coming," says Brown. "If you look at a map of University Park, it's like the missing tooth. It's adjacent to development, but nothing's happening there."

As straightforward as it may seem, even this acquisition hasn't been without its problems.

"We started [the Red Ribbon Commission] in August of 2010, and by October of 2010, it became apparent through MIT that [MIT's investment group] weren't being exactly forthright about their plans," Reeves says. One day in October, he says, he was in a meeting at City Hall with MIT about the future of the All Asia block — which, at the time, was mostly devoid of tenants — and MIT neglected to mention that it had become the property's new developer.

"We as a city can't work if the community partners are being deceptive," Reeves says.

"I don't see it as a conflict, I see it as an ongoing dialogue," says Patrick Rowe of MIT's relationship with the city of Cambridge. Rowe serves as the MIT Investment Management Company's associate director of real estate. "MIT's here for the long haul."

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