Volpe Up-Zoning on Hold, for Now

by Shelley Rieman and Lee Farris

Volpe_2016-03-22_15.17.10.jpegMany Cambridge residents breathed a sigh of relief when the City Council voted February 22nd to delay consideration of massive redevelopment plans for the 14-acre Volpe site in Kendall Square. The Council must vote to rezone the parcel in order for the plans to move forward.

“Unless you table this vote, the clock will start ticking, and you’ll have set the stage for another looming, fire-drill deadline,” Carol O’Hare, a Cambridgeport resident, said during public comment at the City Council meeting. “That’s no way to re-zone 14 acres of prime city real estate.”

The Council voted 8-1, with only Councilor Tim Toomey opposed, to “lay the motion on the table” instead of sending it on to the Ordinance Committee. The tabling allows more time for Council deliberation and community input.

The John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (photo on left)  is an outdated building sitting on a federally-owned, 14-acre parcel of land at 55 Broadway, in the heart of Kendall Square. The feds want to replace the building without asking Congress to pay for it, since Congress is often deadlocked.

The federal General Services Administration (GSA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) are seeking a development company to build, at its own expense, a new federal transportation research facility where the old Volpe building now stands, in exchange for the right to privately develop the remaining 11 acres with a combination of residential, office, and lab space. Some estimates have put the price tag of the new facility and necessary environmental remediation (due to the industrial history of the area) as high as $400 to $500 million.

To achieve enough profit to enable the developer to build a new Volpe center for free, the GSA would like the site to be rezoned to allow more and larger buildings. The city’s Community Development Department proposed zoning based on the recommendations of the Kendall Square (K2) Planning Study. CDD proposed that about 40% of the site be set aside for housing and another portion for open space and retail

In May 2015, the Planning Board submitted a zoning petition for such a plan. There was significant community opposition to the Volpe petition, and in December 2015, the City Council did not support it.  Residents and the Cambridge Residents Alliance expressed concerns including:    

  • too little community involvement in developing the plan;
  • insufficient housing, including affordable, family, homeowner, and even market-rate housing;
  • too little open space;
  • excessive increases in height and density;
  • large increases in vehicle trip generation;
  • inadequate health and safety requirements;
  • inadequate analysis of the finances of the proposal.

Additionally, the City Council voted to create a Volpe Task Force that would include resident members as well as others.

When the Volpe petition again came before the Council Feb. 22 to be re-filed, it did not incorporate any of the changes recommended by residents and councilors, and a Task Force has not yet been appointed. Instead of sending the petition to the Ordinance Committee, the Council passed an order that tasked the committee with scheduling meetings to continue the Volpe conversation. They are not bound by any timeline.

Meanwhile, the Council was told that the GSA plans to issue a Request for Proposals from developers this spring, despite the fact that there is no zoning change yet. 

The Cambridge Residents Alliance looks forward to working with other community groups and the City Council to create a Volpe development plan that benefits Cambridge residents and is a center of civic life in Kendall Square.


Shelley Rieman is recording secretary of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, is a co-editor of Neighborhood Voices, and is active in the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association and Mothers Out Front.  Lee Farris is a vice-president of the Cambridge Residents Alliance and is active in the Area 4/The Port Coalition.

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