Kendall Square, one of the nation’s hottest high-tech development zones, is about to kick it up a notch — and many more stories. The Cambridge City Council last month approved forward-looking new zoning laws for 26 acres of land owned by MIT. Because of increased height limits, the university will be able to build 2 million square feet of office, laboratory, retail, academic, and residential space. The city, to its credit, also got MIT to set aside a percentage of new construction for low-cost innovation space for start-ups — and will allow the institute to build bigger if it sets aside more. This judicious measure should help keep small entrepreneurs from being forced out of the neighborhood by biotech behemoths.
Yet small start-ups aren’t the only ones afraid of being priced out. So are people living around MIT. The institute can help relieve upward pressure on rents by housing more of its graduate students. In the 1980s, MIT had an explicit goal of housing half of them. But despite the addition of 1,300 beds since 1997, the percentage of graduate students housed has only edged up — from 30 percent in the 1990s to 39 percent of its current 6,259 graduate students. The institute, which has at least established a working group to study future needs, maintains that most of the grad students whom it doesn’t house want to live off campus anyway. But in an area with a chronic housing shortage, more units are needed.
The city council’s decision to raise height limits is a gesture of good faith toward MIT — one that should make the already buzzing Kendall Square even more of a hive for innovation and city life. MIT should make a similar gesture, by laying out a detailed plan to add substantially more housing for its grad students.