13-story building on the John A. Volpe National Transportation Center land parcel in Kendall Square

The current 13-story building on the John A. Volpe National Transportation Center land parcel in Kendall Square could be reconfigured to 500 feet or, in one city councillor’s imagining, 1,000 feet. (Photo: Google)

The City Council fretted about affordable housing percentages and contemplated a sky-high tower Monday beginning initial discussions for the zoning of the John A. Volpe National Transportation Center land parcel in Kendall Square. The Volpe Center could be “the most important development site in the country, if not the world,” according to councillor Nadeem Mazen.

The meeting was the council’s first real look at the words on paper that might match the vision they have been hearing about for months. Their discussion went for a little over an hour.

The Department of Transportation has hoped for years to exchange its outdated facility at 55 Broadway for a modern 250,000-square-foot building, and the steps toward that vision are slowly taking place. Last August the government issued a public call for development ideas for Volpe’s 14-acre site, with the intent that a private developer will build Volpe a new building on the site. In exchange Volpe will give that developer the remaining land, which will be redeveloped as a major group of buildings in the heart of Kendall Square.

Since that point, the city has been working on appropriate zoning. Planning staff initially proposed zoning to the Planning Board in December, and the board has discussed the zoning four times since, most recently May 5, when it voted to submit the petition to the City Council. In the meantime, the council held a roundtable meeting with federal staffers and city planners April 6.

On Monday the public process formally started, with the council voting to refer the petition to its Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board. Both will hold a series of public hearings over the summer, with the intention of having the council able to pass the zoning petition in September, said Iram Farooq, acting head of the city’s planning agency.

While on paper the petition originated from the all-volunteer board, it is really the work of city planning staff, who have met repeatedly with the board for guidance and direction. The board meetings discussing the zoning text have not allowed time for public comment. That will change with the forthcoming meetings.

From 250 feet to 500-plus?

The board recommended that “one building that is of exceptional architectural quality” could attain a height of 500 feet, dramatically taller than the 250-foot buildings now permitted in Kendall Square.

When it met May 5, the language before the board reflected a 350-foot limit. But members were inspired by city councillor Leland Cheung, who had previously asked why Cambridge could not have a signature, landmark tower, taller than Boston’s 800-foot John Hancock Tower and Prudential Building. Cheung pointed out that the Volpe parcel remains the last undeveloped land in the region that could accommodate height like that, and said it fell in a unique area between Logan Airport flight paths, so a building could rise to 1,000 feet without running afoul of the air traffic regulations.

H Theodore Cohen, the board chairman, summarized its thinking about Cheung Tower: “I’m glad we all seem comfortable with 350. Maybe that is the presumed limit, but the Planning Board would have the discretion in certain circumstances to go above that to 400, 500, whatever the City Council might ultimately think. It might not be a bad idea. So if somebody came in with a spectacular building, it could happen.”

While the board permitted that substantial height, it did not increase the density associated with the area, which remains at a floor area ratio of 4.5 ≠ so in the current conception, any tower of such height would be exceedingly narrow and thin.

The board was also not married to 500 feet as a height. While members expressed concern about the impact of shadows, there was no consensus 500 was the correct height, and the final height allowed for a signature building could be higher or lower.

Board debates inclusionary housing

The board also had trouble reaching a consensus on the percentage of affordable housing that would be required. City staff, in a May draft, recommended 13 percent of housing should be low-income housing, with 2 percent for middle-income housing, totaling 15 percent. The city’s current standard is 11.5 percent for low-income housing.

Steve Cohen urged the board to go to 10 percent low-income and 10 percent middle-income, and argued strongly that the board needed a much-more detailed examination of the economics of low-income housing.

Ultimately, the board felt it did not have the confidence that raising the total affordable housing above 15 percent would not affect the viability of the project, and as a result, it held its recommendation to 15 percent; but it expressed a desire to raise the moderate-income housing above staff’s recommended 2 percent. The final compromise was 10 percent and 5 percent.

“We all agree on the goal,” Catherine Preston Connolly said, “which is to get as much as we can without killing the project.”

At Monday’s council meeting, affordable-housing advocate Ellen Shachter urged the council to consider 17.5 percent the minimum for low-income housing, based on her research of other communities. Shachter is an attorney with Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services.

“Not just height for height’s sake”

The council’s discussion on Monday was led off by Mazen, who expressed frustration that, if this was the most important development site in the country, there were not really any explicit aspirations for development at that level. “There’s no world-class ‘something,’” he said. Mazen said he really wanted to understand the range of possibilities for affordable housing percentages. “I’d like to get what we deserve, especially from the world’s best development site,” he said.

Cheung said it is “really important to get this right,” and remarked that when he was new to the council, he was told by Congressman Michael Capuano, formerly a Somerville mayor, that “it would take a miracle” to get the federal government to agree to redevelop the site. “Lo and behold, a few years later, he’s given us a miracle on a silver platter.”

Cheung said “it’s not just height for height’s sake,” but that a thousand-foot height could allow an additional 250 units of affordable housing. It’s not clear that Cheung was accounting for the limitations of density that the draft zoning specifies, however.

Cheung asked for a strong community process, and he encouraged the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to play a part.

Marc McGovern remarked on the difficulties of defining the zoning without knowing what the ultimate project might look like, and expressed concern that the city be “careful and responsible.” McGovern said that the proposed 10 percent low-income, 5 percent middle-income “does not even come close,” and hoped that the Volpe site could do better than the Mass+Main project , which “sets a bare minimum at 17 percent and 3 percent.” The recently-approved Mass+Main zoning allows a 195-foot tower on the edge of Central Square.

Money, speed concerns

Dennis Carlone said he thought the forthcoming design guidelines would be important to setting the character of the neighborhood, and stressed the importance of dividing the lot area into smaller blocks, because that is what adds character to a neighborhood.

Tim Toomey expressed concern that the city might produce a result that was not financially feasible for the Volpe development to go forward: “Everything is going to come down to money, whether we like it or not,” he said. In response, Farooq said the city had budgeted this year for a development consultant to help the planning staff on such issues.

Craig Kelley said he was “feeling rushed,” and that “it’s going to be a very challenging conversation.” Kelley said he did not think it was a forgone conclusion that the Volpe zoning would necessarily pass the council.

E. Denise Simmons said she felt she needed a more concrete presentation, and “that is a lot of height.” She was not sure she could support 1,000 feet, but Simmons said she wanted to “maximize our housing opportunities.”

Mayor David Maher said he was “delighted to have this conversation,” and noted that at least as far back as an East Cambridge rezoning proposal from 2001, the problem had been getting the federal government to negotiate about the site, but “we finally have them at the table.” Maher said there were “endless possibilities” and asked if it was possible for this project to “spark some homeownership opportunities.”

Public comment

Before the council’s remarks, several members of the public offered comments about the Volpe project.

Carol O’Hare, of Cambridgeport, said the Mass+Main project was rushed at the City Council and public comment was given “short shrift,” which she defined. She asked that the council take care not to do it again, and expressed concern about the 500-foot height and reduction of open space called for in the zoning.

Jane Stabile, who lives next to the Volpe parcel, asked the council to preserve open space in the area and pay attention to sunlight.

Elaine DeRosa, of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, said there were far too few affordable housing units in the proposal, and was troubled by the shift from low-income to moderate-income housing.

Heather Hoffman, of East Cambridge, expressed concern with the past few months of process about the Volpe zoning, especially Planning Board meetings at which the public was not allowed to speak. Now that there are words on paper, they would be viewed as the starting point, but that starting point “should have been set with much wider conversations.”

Yes, no, yes again on 3-D model … maybe.

In preparation for the April board presentation, city planning staff produced a series of three-dimensional electronic models of hypothetical scenarios for Volpe development. After agreeing to release them to the public, city lawyers changed their mind and said that because the Volpe zoning had not been finalized, they could withhold the electronic models under the “deliberative process” exemption to the public records law, which allows the government to avoid releasing materials that could taint the process of policy development.

As recently as Friday, city lawyers claimed they could withhold the 3-D models until the council takes final action on the zoning.

But at Monday’s meeting, Carlone and vice mayor Dennis Benzan asked Farooq if a model could be made available, saying it would be “very helpful.”

Farooq agreed, saying “we have a few different models that we are happy to share.”

After the meeting, though, Farooq said she would be sharing the model with the council but not be making it publicly available.