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Cambridge has almost selected a team to develop an open space “framework plan” for Kendall Square and its surrounding areas. Four ConnectKendall competition finalists are making their presentations today and Thursday, with a winner to be announced in April, and videos of the presentations will be online. The finalists each get a $50,000 honorarium for their work, and the city expects to spend another $50,000 hiring the winner to consult for two months to refine the plan. The winner will be selected by a competition jury of design and development professionals appointed by the city.

The written submissions from the four finalists offered expansive big-ticket features such as islands and bridges in and across the Charles River, substantial water features on the site of the John A. Volpe National Transportation Center and re-extending the Broad Canal further inland. These combine with smaller elements such as warming huts by the river, ziplines, sledding hills, public art and games. Posters showcasing the plans have been on display in the Google Connector lobby at 355 Main St. But there is no expectation that all the features outlined in the plans would necessarily be built, and certainly not in the imminent future.

“There is no specific commitment that the city must build … according to the ideas or concepts” from the finalists or winners, Stuart Dash, director of community planning, told the Planning Board at a March 10 hearing. Cambridge has budgeted money for some parks within the study area, such as $9.5 million toward Rogers Street Park and Triangle Park, contributed by Alexandria Real Estate Equities. There is also funding for the “Pork Chop” park at Binney Street along the Grand Junction railroad right-of-way.

“This is going to create a little bit of a stir here,” board member Louis Bacci said. “A lot of people are already talking about ‘this is what’s going to be done,’” Bacci said, and he worried that it might be a “dangerous step” if none of the plans were implemented.

“It’s probably up to us … to frame this right, so that we manage that expectation better,” said Iram Farooq, the acting head of the city’s planning department. Farooq said the teams had been under “no obligation to think through” whether their designs would be possible, “buildable, financeable and so forth.”

Competition coordinator Don Stastny said he was very happy with the finalists, and “very pleased with where we are right now.” Stastny noted that Cambridge appeared to be unique in the scope and breadth of its competition – designing a framework for open spaces in a region, rather than a single site or element.  “This hopefully will set some ideas in place that are at least worth exploring,” he said.

Asked about some of the more grand ideas, Stastny said: “I see those things in there, the architect-planner in me says ‘How realizable are they?’ – I kind of cringe. But the visionary side of me says, ‘What the hell, maybe it’ll never get there, but it will open a dialogue … what will happen?”

The plans

The idea of a plan to connect – thematically and physically – the open spaces in the Kendall area is an outgrowth of the city’s 2011–12 K2C2 zoning process. The study area, roughly, runs from Main Street and Galileo Galilei Way on the west, along the Grand Junction railroad tracks to the north, into the residential East Cambridge neighborhood to include Ahern Field at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, east to the Charles River and along the Charles to Ames Street. A centerpiece of many of the plans is what happens at the Volpe Center site, which is undergoing rezoning in advance of the federal government’s request for proposals to redevelop the site.

Each finalist submitted a nearly 100-page written and illustrated framework plan, which they then boiled down to a half-dozen posters with their project highlights. In most cases, the posters only tease at the ideas developed in the frameworks. In all cases the electronic submissions are large – tens of megabytes:

bullet-gray-small Public Space Center, by Framework Cultural Placemaking (See the framework here at 25 megabytes or posters here at 20 megabytes)

bullet-gray-small Connecting Kendall with Landscape Experience, by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (See the framework’s first part here at 17 megabytes and second part here at 23 megabytes or posters here at 20 megabytes)

bullet-gray-small Richard Burck Associates (See the framework here at 21 megabytes or posters here at 18 megabytes)

bullet-gray-small Kendall Commons Public Realm, by Sitelab Urban Studio (See the framework here at 80 megabytes or posters here at 8 megabytes)

The Public Space Center plan is anchored in Kendall Square’s 1960 history as the original location for what is now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and features outer space-related imagery throughout the written plan. It proposes creating a dozen open spaces within the area and scatters “outposts” throughout – colored red toward the T station and blue toward  the riverfront – that could serve as anything from winter warming huts to playrooms to mini markets to science labs to performance platforms to artist showcases. The plan offers numerous programming suggestions, such as Canine Mission, “a digital app with daily physical challenges for you and your dog”; or a real-world “Minecraft” game with life-sized blocks.

Connecting Kendall with Landscape Experience by local firm Michael van Valkenburgh proposes a long-term vision of new park islands in the Charles River, extending from the Museum of Science to MIT, with pedestrian bridges between the islands, even crossing to the Boston side. MVVA divides the parks thematically, with a water-filled Kendall Green at the Volpe site that has 1,500- and 800-person event spaces and mini-islands; the company targets the Pork Chop for “adventure play in nature,” with sledding and biking; Rogers Street Park is for neighborhood activities including a community garden; and a sports park/field is created opposite Ahern field.

Richard Burck Associates’ plan centers around the Broad Canal, extending it west across the Volpe parcel where it ran a hundred years ago. The Volpe parcel is divided into separate open spaces that surround development: a Broad Wetland to the west and Broad Square to the east. Burck, a local Somerville firm, expands the Point Park (the intersection of Main, Third and Wadsworth) into Point Plaza, a larger space where Main Street enters the park and is a “woonerf”: a shared street used by pedestrians and cars. Burck sites a sledding hill and dog park within the Rogers Street Park, and converts Rogers Street into a woonerf as well. A zipline is installed in the Pork Chop park, along with a bridge spanning a canyon with rock climbing walls.

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Sitelab’s Kendall Commons plan (above) tries to reveal paths to the Charles River and Broad Canal and offers activation strategies such as a “Valentine’s Day Snowball Fight” and annual “Temple to the Galaxy” art competition centered around Point Park’s water-emitting (and steam in the winter, if repaired) Galaxy sculpture. Sitelab proposes floating islands with wetlands and paths in the Charles River, termed “The Great Marsh.” It also proposes extending the canal west through to the Volpe site. Sitelab suggests building a land bridge over Memorial Drive at Ames Street to ease access to the river. It acknowledges the importance of connecting the Roger Street Park to the nearby Foundry building.

Volpe parcel

ConnectKendall could have a strong stamp on the future of the Volpe transportation parcel, aside from whether the physical architecture gets funded for implementation, because changes on the Volpe parcel are happening soon and the proposals will inform those changes.

The City Council and Planning Board are holding a roundtable meeting April 6 with representatives from Volpe and the U.S. General Services Administration and the board will discuss Volpe zoning April 7. The city’s planning department has already put forth a draft zoning proposal that could reduce the 7.5-acre open space requirement in the Volpe parcel, and each of the four finalists has presented different plans for the allotment of that 14-acre site. The federal government is expected to issue an request for proposals on the Volpe parcel this calendar year.

Three of the four finalists propose locating much of the Volpe site’s open space in a single large park, with the remainder of the site consumed by future development.

But Richard Burck takes a different tack. In Burck’s plan, a Broad Wetland is the largest open space, on the southwest corner of the Volpe parcel, adjoining the Ames and Broadway intersection. Midway across the wetland, it connects to the Broad Inlet, the westward extension of Broad Canal, and connects with Broad Square and open green space on the southeast corner across the Broadway and Third intersection from Point Park. Burck’s design splits the available space into significant and sizable pieces, and balances its distribution throughout the site.

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MVVA puts its Kendall Green (above), a nearly 5-acre water park, on the southeast corner of Volpe, abutting Point Park. Described as “a dramatic landscape of hills, open lawns and water, a sun-filled and activity-filled park,” Kendall Green has two mini-islands within its water area and includes a barbecue and picnic area. The green space extends a sliver to the north, continuing along the west edge of Third Square.

Kendall Commons uses a similar placement: “The Common at Broad Canal” is on Volpe’s southeast corner. The Common includes a hardscape civic plaza, a “water theatre” pool where water-based performances could take place, along with elevated seating overlooking the common.

The Public Space Center (below) puts its Volpe Backyard to the west of the Third Square apartments, with an enhanced Canal Trace along Broadway connecting it to Point Park and Broad Canal. Its imagery shows children firing off 5-foot model rockets into the sky.

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In their own words

For MVVA, Matt Urbanski emphasized a landscape approach and said the company tried to keep “a playful state of mind.” Urbanski hoped the connection of his islands in the Charles to the Museum of Science could help retain that playfulness, and also talked up topography – the varying heights of the open spaces: MVVA’s sledding hill at the Pork Chop could be 25 feet high and 30 feet long. With respect to the extensive islands in the Charles, Urbanski acknowledged there could be environmental permitting issues, but that “hydrologically it’s not a problem. It would add a living aspect to the river basin,” he said, and did not think that that new pedestrian bridges across the river would impede boating.

For the Kendall Commons plan, Eleanor Pries said her team’s proposals for the Charles would ideally be constructed with piles into the riverbed, but they would also be feasible as floating islands that weren’t deeply anchored. Pries, who grew up in Cambridge, said her team wanted Kendall Commons to be “a collective good, a set of collective resources.” Her team tried to answer: “In addition to the DNA of water, the DNA of innovation, what is really the lifeblood of Kendall Square?” Pries sees the parks in the plan as magnets and wants to encourage people to “make the place – making it your own.” She hopes the plan will help to bring the Area IV and East Cambridge neighborhoods together. Pries and her team suggest narrowing several streets by removing lanes from Binney, Broadway and Land Boulevard and enlarging the open space that borders on those streets.

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Richard Burck’s plan (above) is dominated by the Broad Canal, and his team’s extension of it to the west. Burck hopes the Broad Wetland would bring in wildlife, including mammals and birds, and would have a rich horticulture. Burck said his plan removes the Galaxy sculpture from Point Park, and he would “like to see it replaced with something more activated with people.” Burck’s plan adds a modest green island along Memorial Drive at the river: “The river’s edge is pretty impoverished. It could offer a lot more as a destination, it should be a really wonderful place,” he said. “This is our gesture towards creating a landscape out there.” Burck said the conversion of Main Street at Point Park into a woonerf would ramp up, like street crossings near an elementary school, and the “idea is for a car driver to feel like he’s really in the pedestrian world, not the other way around.”

For the Public Space Center, Lesley Bain said her team was caught up in a future of positive urbanism, and wanted to build Kendall Square into a participatory living laboratory – to bring Kendall’s reputation as a place of ideas to ground level and to make it interesting with fun ideas and programming. Bain said her team didn’t propose major additions to the riverscape because “the main mission was to get you to the river.” Bain said she wanted to strengthen connections on both sides of the Marriott hotel, and that “the Volpe site is so hugely important to the future. It’s right smack in the middle of this neighborhood; you make it break it on the Volpe site.”

The competition jury will hear presentations from the four finalists and consider written public input. Comments can be posted on the Connect Kendall website, or longer form letters can be sent care of Taha Jennings in the City Manager’s Office.

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