June 30 Policy Update

Nov. 17, 2015 update: Zoning as pertains to the Volpe parcel is on the Planning Board’s Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 Agenda (7pm, 344 Broadway). I advocate for mixed-use density, ecological integration, and useful open space.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.50.03 PM
An image from CDD’s draft framework.

My amateur planning imagination has the site coming out something like this:

E to W/NW, middle: Broad canal and wetland. {ecology; open space}
SW: Iconic tower at the corner of Broadway & Sixth Street Connector. {high-rise; residential; mixed-use}
N: Contributing “Biotech Champs-Elysées” structure(s) along Binney Street {mid-rise; office/lab; mixed-use}
NE: Residential building(s) {mid-rise; residential}
SE corner: Important edge treatment to relate with ‘Kendall Square’ proper {plaza; open space; transportation}
S/SE/E: New Volpe Center {high- or mid-rise; mixed-use possibility}
S: Kendall T and MIT access/relationship {transportation}
Middle: Welcoming, usable, accessible open space {open space}
The heights in the revised zoning petition (pdf) generally support my scheme, and I do prefer to keep the height limits (for the iconic tower in particular) less than anticipated proposals, so as to keep additional layers of design review. Key to a 1,000 foot tower is that it’s architecturally iconic. There is certainly more than one way to do this parcel; for graphics and content, the City’s Draft Urban Design Framework (pdf) is a document worth your review.

This week, it’s all about Volpe

In the heart of Kendall Square lies a swath of land with a crumbling half-built [Unrealized] NASA-cum-USDOT research center, gracefully surrounded by Keep-Off Grass, a sea of parking, and security gates. It’s also some of the most potentially valuable (and exciting) developable real estate in the U.S., and maybe the world.

The Volpe Center
The Volpe Center

The federal government intends to “exchange” the 14-acre parcel, commonly known as the Volpe site, to a developer who would need to return a new, 400,000 square foot Volpe Research Center, and additionally win the privilege of development rights on the rest of the site.

A zoning petition filed by the Planning Board is the major issue at play, as Cambridge and the federal government come closer to determining the disposition of the property. The petition would serve as a tool for establishing some of the basic framework for any future redevelopment.

The process over the next several months provides us an opportunity to plan the site and clearly define the community-beneficial elements of any future development, before any special permit or zoning relief is sought—even before a specific developer owns or has rights to the site.

Here are some of the priorities that have been regularly expressed by members of the community who have been active observers in the Volpe process:

  • High affordable housing ratio
  • Utilizing the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority for advice, negotiating, management, studies, etc.
  • Local, affordable retail
  • Creating “place”
  • Useful open space, accessible and attractive to all
  • Including amenities like educational facilities, a library branch, and community rooms
  • Public markets and performance spaces
  • Concerns over building heights
  • Concerns over density
  • Concerns over automobile traffic and automobile parking
  • Concerns over shadows and wind

Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Height, particularly if we approach 500′ or 1000′. Of course, we should expect detailed shadow studies, general environmental impact studies, and a plan for contributing to nearby public infrastructure, from any potential developer. However, it is also important to allow the architectural and site plan concepts to have some breathing room. Massing and design (and to some extent, height itself, albeit within a general framework), ought to be subject to ultimate review instead of prematurely confined. I am advocating for iconic architecture. Great and distinctive design is important in the Kendall Square/East Cambridge context, and especially if we anticipate structures at 200’, or 500’, or more.

Councillor Cheung’s comment about a 1000′ tower on the Volpe site should not be laughed away off hand because it’s a high number. Perhaps it can work in the city; we should be excited to see what proposals and concepts developers and architects can bring forth. Personally, of the four 3D concepts shown by CDD, I find the 1000′ tower concept to be the most attractive and exciting. It creates the most open space, by far, and takes advantage of one of the few places where this sort of height can happen (per FAA rules)—and where this sort of height and density wouldn’t be directly contextually disruptive. Just one Marriott lobby away from the Kendall Square T station, the Volpe Center, as a place to live, work, and play, is as transit-oriented as it gets. It is ripe for density, and for architecture and public programming that will win the world’s attention.

Rough massing concepts provided by CDD show what a 1000' tower on the site might look like (right-hand image).
Rough massing concepts provided by CDD show what a 1000′ tower on the site might look like (right-hand image).

Plenty of Cambridge’s recent lower-height buildings with ample automobile parking fail to contribute to the city or to enhance livability for their residents/employees/neighbors (low heights plus a high supply of parking is allegedly the magic formula). Meanwhile, the Empire State Building, one of the tallest in our hemisphere, has fine street-scale engagement, and despite its “extremeness” is, if not directly human-scale, amply humane in its expression and contextual interaction. Another great example, closer to home, is the new Avalon apartment building at 45 Stuart Street in Boston, which at 289′, manages to contribute distinctively to its Theater District surroundings, while being contextually fitting. That is, height in and of itself is not the villain. Poor design, poor area planning, and lack of diverse uses, are all more villainous.

2. Integration of economic brackets, not segregation. It would be disappointing to have luxury towers with token affordable elements on one side, and more affordable, isolated townhouse/parking lot clusters (for instance) on the other. The old models are ineffective. We should set laudable minimum affordable standards, but moreover, we should encourage creativity in how housing and economic opportunities achieve equitable footing, and cross-integrate with each other, in a redeveloped Volpe. The design must speak to the program and vice versa. This is hard to write in code, but being open and upfront in our conversations will directly impact the ultimate decision-making process.

We should explore a 20% (or higher) affordable housing ratio: 12-15% lower income, and 5-8% moderate income. The burden ought to be on proving that a higher ratio (than the currently envisioned 15% total) can’t work, rather than simply going with what we’re already sure could work.

3. Traffic and Traffic and Parking and Parking and… MIT, one block away, has committed to placing all parking and loading underground, in its East Campus plan, which involves multiple new, large-scale and highly programmed buildings. Today’s East Campus parking lots promise to be incredibly walkable and bikeable corridors and plazas, oriented around tall/dense buildings, and exciting retail, educational, residential, research, and social programming.

We must make a conscious effort—even beyond placing parking underground—toward Volpe being a paradigm-shifting development. Every $100,000 spent creating an underground parking space, or every 80 square feet of space devoted to at-grade parking, are resources that are unavailable for people-centered open space, residential and commercial density, community programs, etc. etc.

We should rigorously determine the minimum parking that’s absolutely necessary and make that the maximum. We cannot continue engineering our city around traffic models; we must design our city for livability. Volpe is a chance to put livability, sustainability, and equity first, while fostering innovation, continuing to welcome world-class institutions, and making a 21st-century architectural statement.

If we plan for thousands of daily automobile trips we will get them. This is an opportunity for a non-automobile-oriented development, and for the city to be serious about committing to livability, net zero, and other official policy goals.

Here are some starting points: aggressively low parking maximums; bold bike parking minimums and bikeway integration; qualitative relation of the site with nearby transit (Kendall T, bus lines, EZ Ride, etc.); and excellent walkability through the entire redeveloped site, and to/across all surrounding nodes. Moreover, we need to commit to “getting it” as a city, so zoning and the review process can be used purposefully in this way.

We should change the parking minimum to 0.2 per residential unit, and the parking maximum to 0.5 per residential unit. In addition, we should clearly define parking maximums for the commercial square footage. Car-sharing (e.g. Zipcar) and bike-sharing (Hubway) should be heavily required.

4. Context: conceptual and environmental integration. The winning submission to the Connect Kendall Square Open Space Competition called for a surprising and challenging scheme for the use of space at the Volpe site, including an extension of the canal and adding ecological features. This should not be left on the table. In fact, Kendall Square’s open spaces, as well as its built working and living places, relies on the centrally-located Volpe site for critical enhancement and connectivity. Nearby developments (Ames Street residential tower, MIT East Campus plan, Binney Street, Grand Junction, etc.) must be considered hard at all stages of the Volpe process. Baselines like energy efficiency (a specific goal of the Planning Board’s zoning petition), area ecology, and urban resiliency must be factored into the redevelopment plans.

Today's anti-urban site plan
Today’s anti-urban site plan

5. Penetrability. It is crucial that the Volpe site is redeveloped as a piece of our city. Every street and pathway should be public and 24/7/365. A developer should consciously anticipate desire lines, and focus on “place.” We should experiment with new kinds of streets and plazas that are people-first, and which encourage human interaction and healthy and sustainable modes of travel like cycling. Today this is one of the most automobile-oriented sites in the city. We have a chance to create a new place where cars are rare guests.

6. Open space. We must advocate for a cohesive, large open space on the Volpe site. This is a no-brainier when we get to more or less start from scratch on a 14-acre parcel. Let’s demand good enough design and good enough architecture that we don’t need to waste space on screening hedges and other useless “open space” scattered around the site to meet arbitrary zoning demands. We can and must have a large, active, open space, or a few. The 25% real open space requirement is a great way to capture this objective. Perhaps that number can tilt higher, and perhaps a non-divisibility can be written into the zoning text, such that it can be distributed over a maximum of e.g., 3 contiguous open spaces. Anything else (perhaps a more attractive scheme that serves the same goals will arise in a developer’s proposal) would require review. So, a we create strong guideline, but understand that something really good that doesn’t otherwise meet that guideline could potentially be accepted. (This is true, in fact, for all of this proposed zoning: for instance, a 500′ cap on height doesn’t mean a developer couldn’t in theory come with a 1000′ tower proposal, and get approval—it would have to be really great, which of course is what we want).


Check out the improvements to James O. Dance, Jr. Square (at the corner of Bishop Allen Drive and Main Street, across from Craigie on Main and U-Haul), including colorful metal bench additions and steel planter boxes.

Dance Square

June 30 Policy Update