Cambridge City Council approves MIT’s petition for Volpe Center rezoning

Institute also moves forward on Kendall Square Initiative, which will include graduate and low-income housing

The Cambridge City Council voted Monday to approve MIT’s petition for a rezoning of the site on which the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center operates.

In collaboration with the Cambridge community, MIT will move ahead to redevelop this 14-acre site in Kendall Square, beginning with redesigning a consolidated headquarters for the Volpe Center on four of the 14 acres. Once construction on the Volpe Center is complete, MIT and the U.S. General Services Administration will sign an exchange agreement giving MIT the rights to redevelop the remaining 10 acres.

The new site will feature housing, retail, office and lab space, and open space. Twenty percent of the housing will be affordable housing: housing for which the homeowner or tenant pays a maximum of 30 percent of their gross income.

The site is in a prime location: the 14 acres are located a stone’s throw north of the Kendall T station.

MIT won the U.S. General Services Administration bid for the land parcel in November 2016 for $750 million. Funding came from MIT’s investment funds, not from its operating budget or academic funds.

MIT submitted the zoning petition in June 2017 after research into the area and collaboration with the residents and government of Cambridge, according to Sarah Gallop, co-director, the office of government & community relations. MIT conducted over 80 public meetings with the community regarding the Volpe development and will continue to do so throughout this process.

“I think it’s been an impressive work of collaboration by many in the MIT community, as well as in City of Cambridge, the neighborhoods, planning institutions, companies, not-for-profits, certainly the city council and the city government, because I think we all care so much about what happens,” Israel Ruiz, executive vice president and treasurer, told The Tech in an interview.

Ruiz said that MIT students can look forward to a community center through the Priscilla King Grant Foundation to connect them to Cambridge K-12 students for outreach programs. MIT is also placing a job connector program on the site to help facilitate employment connections between residents of East Cambridge and other neighborhoods and MIT.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Kendall Square, MIT and Cambridge recently broke ground on the first building of the Kendall Square Initiative, a redesigning of Kendall Square intended to enhance its characteristics as a center of innovation. The entire construction process is expected to be completed seven to ten years in the future, though some buildings will be completed in three to five years.

“The idea was that if you looked at the Kendall Square area in that time [2008–2009], where MIT owns property, we had a lot of parking lots … [and] a lot of them were underutilized. And as Kendall Square has become more and more of an innovation ecosystem, having parking lots in the middle of a vibrant, diverse, innovative place, didn’t seem like a good use of MIT’s property,” Gallop said in an interview with The Tech.

In addition to the issue of underutilization, the Kendall Square community also has needs to be met. It’s “very hard to get amenities in Kendall Square,” Gallop said. “There’s no grocery store, there’s no drug store. … We thought we could put our property to a higher and better use.

MIT began reimagining the Kendall Square space by talking to the Cambridge community and the City of Cambridge government, who agreed as to the importance of the project. Throughout this process, MIT has collaborated with the residents of Cambridge, holding hundreds of town meetings and forums.

The city approved MIT’s application for increased zoning for the site necessary to allow the area to take shape. As a transit node, Kendall Square is suited for “the most density and height, because people are coming in and out to that place,” Gallop said.

Much of the current construction is on the underground garage, replacing the former parking lots and ensuring access to the retail that will be available.

After the city approved new zoning regulations, MIT and its architectural teams — one for each of the six zones — started the planned unit development (PUD) process. Each building needed a design review process with the planning board of the City of Cambridge. Five of the six zones have been approved at press time.

These six buildings will be dedicated to housing (including graduate student housing and affordable housing — 90 out of 260 residential units will be affordable housing), retail, and lab and office space. The graduate student housing construction began on Oct. 11, and will include in innovation space. Some office and lab space construction at two of the zones is projected to begin next, in 2018, followed by housing at One Broadway in 2019. The final zones will more office and lab space, as well as retail.

Open space for public use is a key component of the design. “It’s meant to be an extension of the infinite corridor … for people to gather in,” Gallop said. MIT and its architecture teams are still designing the open space and determining which direction it will take.

All these amenities are intended to create a an environment  which brings people together and encourages collaboration. Kendall Square is already a place where over 50,000 people work each day and is home to biotech and technology companies, research institutes, and incubators, such as Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) and LabCentral. The redesigned Kendall Square will aim to place MIT students, members of the Cambridge community, professionals and entrepreneurs in this vibrant business district, and the resources of Kendall Square incubators and of MIT all in close proximity to each other with the goal of encouraging innovation.

“So we’ve got MIT students coming out of classes and labs, setting up shop at the CIC and LabCentral, and other people too, and then these companies grow, and they move into other spaces in Kendall, and elsewhere … what we’ve got is the complete lifecycle of industry, all the way from startups, through medium companies, and larger companies, too,” Gallop said. There are a “lot of MIT ties [and a] lot of MIT founders” as well.

Research is also at the heart of Kendall Square. MIT, Radon, the Koch Institute, the Whitehead Institute, and other research groups thrive in and contribute to the Kendall Square ecosystem. Adding in retail and open spaces which bring people together will create a “sense of place” encouraging collaboration and innovation, according to Gallop.

Ruiz said that “[we will] continue to work together to shape the future in common as we’ve been able to do: inclusive, diverse, and respecting the aspirations of what innovation brings, but also in an inclusive way for the residents of Cambridge.”