The federal John A. Volpe Transportation Center plays a large role in imagining the future of open space in Kendall Square, including in an open space contest with winners to be announced this month. (Image: Framework)

The federal John A. Volpe Transportation Center plays a large role in imagining the future of open space in Kendall Square, including in an open space contest with winners to be announced this month. (Image: Framework)

The once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake 14 acres in the heart of Kendall Square headed to the Planning Board tonight with few things certain, and with city councillors all too aware of that.

“I feel a little uncomfortable having any opinions now, because as near as I can tell we’re trying to give you zoning that will allow you to fund the building you want to build, but no one really knows what that building’s going to look like, and no one knows what it’s going to cost, so we don’t know what to zone,” councillor Craig Kelley told representatives from the federal John A. Volpe Transportation Center. “I don’t know how to break that circle.”

“That’s the challenge for all of us – to come up with a zoning package that we can explain why it has to be that way,” Kelley said.

Volpe now takes up the entire acreage, but the government is looking to part with about 10 acres to pay for a new center, shrinking from its current six aging buildings to a more compact, state-of-the-art 400,000 square feet of office and research space.

K2 and ConnectKendall

Its officials are so far exploring options from potential developers and figuring out how the design would connect with the so-called K2 design process done for Kendall Square in 2011-12 and the ConnectKendall open space design competition, whose winner is set to be revealed this month. In planning for the site, “all of those [ConnectKendall] proposals could be accommodated,” said Iram Farooq, the acting head of the city’s planning department.

The Community Development Department has abandoned a rezoning proposal from December that shrank the minimum proposed public open space at Volpe by 67 percent, to 2.5 acres. “That’s no longer in the zoning and the latest proposal. We’re back to the percentage open space requirement and talking about the nature of the open space … without trying to pin down a specific percent,” Farooq said, trying to recall the origins of the 2.5 number.

But the 7.5-acre park hoped for at the site since 2001 seems increasingly unlikely, with even councillor Dennis Carlone – who tried to pass an order in February to keep it as an option – saying Monday that he agreed “done correctly, a smaller amount of acreage can be very rich.” (Fellow councillor Nadeem Mazen was more of a skeptic, saying an approach that treated roads and pathways as open space was “a slippery slope.”) Maintaining that size park would leave only 2.5 acres out of development of 10 to pay for the project.

Open-ended on open space

There were general assurances that open space would be a big consideration, but Farooq said that in approaching zoning encouraging development, “what has generally worked best for us is when we’re not incredibly detailed in specific about the size and location as we lay out the principles.”

At the Planning Board’s Jan. 6 hearing, CDD land use and zoning project planner Jeff Roberts proposed this approach:

The idea here was to have five acres of real open space and to make sure at least half of that – as a benchmark – would have to be true public open space, meaning there would have to be some kind of a legal arrangement. Either it would have to be given to the city or there would have to be some other arrangement that guarantees that that is public open space. And it’s something that we can continue to talk about, but it’s a concept that fits with what all the thinking is through the Kendall Square study.

At tonight’s Planning Board meeting, he mentioned 40 percent open space, or a total 5.7 acres, but with pathways and potentially roads included.

Volpe officials said that in addition to welcoming the public into exhibition space showing off its innovations in transportation, they intended to allow access to the government’s open space.

The K2 process, part of a $350,000 contract with Boston consultant Goody Clancy, envisioned 2,000 to 2,500 new housing units, up to 3 million square feet of office and research space and between 200,000 and 250,000 square feet of retail – all around a 7.5-acre park and fitting some 1,144 Volpe workers into smaller, more efficient and less costly buildings. While at least one participant worried that K2 relied on “this fantasy,” Goody Clancy principal David Dixon was correct in saying in 2012 that the land would become available within five or six years.

Landmark tower

One way to put more onto a site constrained by a large park: build higher around it.

Councillor Leland Cheung’s suggestion to build high also painted a tower as a way to ensure people around the world better identified Cambridge and Kendall Square as distinct from Boston.

“If there’s ever been a site in Cambridge for a tall building that says ‘That’s where Cambridge is,’ I think this is it. [The John Hancock Tower] is 800-and-something feet tall? Let’s go over 1,000,” Cheung said, “and say this is where Cambridge is, this is the heart of innovation in Massachusetts.”

Other councillors didn’t seem entirely sure how serious Cheung was, with Kelley saying 1,000 feet was too high but Mayor David Maher acknowledging that “if there’s a place for height in this city, this is probably the place.”

Control for councillors

City councillor Marc McGovern

City councillor Marc McGovern stressed the need for a bidding process that made it clear to developers how much affordable housing is expected at a remade Volpe.

In large part, Volpe and the government’s General Services Administration say they are hands-off at this stage of zoning. “This project has to pay for itself. We’re not advocating for zoning, we’re not advocating for a particular open space scheme. We have asked the city to keep in mind that whatever they do to the parcel, we have to pay for a new federal facility with the funds available from the exchange,” said Robert Zarnetske, the General Services Administration’s administrator for New England. “The specifics really are a matter for the city to decide.”

Zarnetske assured councillors, “You have complete control over the development” and that “it’s really only the small portion we will retain that’s subject to only federal review.”

Councillors, led by E. Denise Simmons, remained worried, as it will be the federal government choosing a developer. Maher echoed her feelings, noting that in past rezonings, “we knew who the developer was or had some kind of proposal before us,” and Cheung wondered if the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority could be brought in on the project.

Marc McGovern was focused on ensuring that the housing and retail that came to Kendall Square as a result of Volpe development had a strong affordable and middle-class component, hopefully with a 25 percent “inclusionary” zoning rule encouraging affordable housing. “I want to be make sure that whatever goes out to potential developers to bid on, that we are clear in the filing about what our expectations are. I don’t want something coming back and saying ‘Oh, we bid thinking 5 percent’ and backing out,” McGovern said.

Vice mayor Dennis Benzan agreed, saying that the need for housing, especially affordable housing, and accompanying retail was more important than open space as a zoning priority.

“We don’t want to just strive for open space, because it’s not going to do much for the city at this point,” Benzan said. “I don’t want to be so strict that we kill the deal and this ends up not getting developed.”