Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A table by the consultant Goody Clancy shows how a handful of towers in Kendall Square would be built at various heights.

There was an urgent tone to Wednesday’s meeting on the future of Kendall Square, but the solution seen by the city’s consultant drew pushback from a city councillor for the first time since work began a year ago.

“It’s the most productive square mile in the country and it’s literally about to run out of space,” warned David Dixon, principal-in-charge of planning and urban design for consultant Goody Clancy, explaining the need for density and even a handful of towers in Kendall Square. “This is a place that needs to grow in, not out. In fact, one of the reasons Kendall Square is so successful is its density. It’s the fact that people run into each other, because they’re right next to each other.”

The consultant is suggesting some 2,000 to 2,500 new housing units, up to 3 million square feet of office and research space and, at ground level, between 200,000 and 250,000 square feet of retail. Dixon said final recommendations were due in the “next month or so,” while Sarah Gallop, co-director of the Office of Government and Community Relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the school’s overlapping and “very aligned” plans for the square were due in mid-May.

“So how do we grow in and, to some extent, up? Very carefully,” Dixon said, describing a plan for six buildings reaching up to 300 feet (as long as their design includes a setback after reaching 85 feet and there’s “at least one major vertical break” every 100 feet).

But Mayor Henrietta Davis was clearly wary of building towers. She asked about the shadows they would cast over Kendall and its proposed large park replacing the federal John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and wondered why the city’s consultants and developers — she named Forest City, which is working for MIT at University Park — were all suddenly proposing “tall, slender.”

Tall, not wide

“This is a real change … I don’t know how others feel about it, but it’s definitely something that bears discussion,” Davis said, contrasting the demand with the building-height restrictions found in a city such as Washington, D.C.

She got not just assurances from Dixon that shadow from the tall buildings would be guarded against, but a response from councillor Leland Cheung, who welcomed taller buildings over safe but uninspired proposals as far back as the earliest discussions with Goody Clancy in May 2011. He questioned Davis’ comparison with the larger Washington, saying that in a small, constrained and transit-oriented area such as Cambridge “I don’t see how you get around height.”

There was already a 329-foot building in Cambridge, according to Roger Boothe, the city’s director of urban design: an MIT dorm near its Sloan School of Management.

It was wide buildings that came in for a bashing from the consultants and officials such as Cheung and councillor Ken Reeves, who called The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT  “a brand-new dead 300-foot block.”

“After Broad tricked us, we should have” known better, Reeves said of The Broad Institute in Kendall Square.

The design of The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT has resulted in “a brand-new dead 300-foot block” for Kendall Square, city councilor Ken Reeves says. (Photo: thelehegarets)

Cheung wondered how high Boston’s John Hancock Tower rose, and was told it was a 600-foot skyscraper. (It is actually 62 stories at 790 feet.) “Just setting my limits,” Cheung said to laughter from the officials and audience members assembled for the City Council roundtable.

There was discussion of how to remake Kendall’s “dead” ground-floor spaces such as at the Koch and Broad institutes for pedestrians, highlighting how important ground-floor retail (or live/work space) was to Kendall. Dixon reminded the officials that retail was possible only with an influx of housing for all income levels, and the potential failure of all that retail space was addressed as well. “Should they attempt to do retail and fail for the first 10 years, [our partners have] graciously offered to step forward to help them find someone, an arts organization or somebody who will genuinely animate the street,” Dixon said.

Roundtable not enough

The council’s roundtable are less formal than its traditional meetings, result in no immediate votes and consist mainly of a presentation, questions and answers. They’re considered study sessions that allow councillors to go in-depth on a topic, and even an attempt by councillor Minka vanBeuzekom to get the 4 p.m. Wednesday session televised was voted down 6-2 as risking the format’s special nature.

Unfortunately, the two hours spent Wednesday weren’t enough to get even halfway through the material Goody Clancy had to present on revamping Kendall and Central squares, leading councillors to suggest that at least an additional half-day retreat was needed. Most of the roundtable was taken up by Dixon giving the same presentation he’d delivered April 10 to the public.

One new thing: discussion of the plan’s reliance on securing the federal government’s Volpe space after years of effort in which, as councillor David Maher put it, “nothing has happened.”

“What makes us think that there is any realistic [chance now]?” Maher asked.

Despite the city’s talks with the government about the Volpe land and internal analyses resulting from the government’s new, leaner approach to handling real estate, “we should be clear this is not something that’s going to happen immediately,” said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development. “So no guarantees this is going to happen … as we look at the phases of development in the area, this is not going to be in the first part or second part.”

When Maher described a need to “plan around” the Volpe center, though, Dixon gave a more optimistic assessment, saying the joint planning government agencies have been doing in the past two years has put the Volpe land “way up on the list” for reuse. “They have moved much further ahead on their agenda of disposing of valuable federal assets,” and the land is worth probably five times what it was worth when Goody Clancy first looked at a park plan in 2001.