Wednesday, April 17, 2024

One study of Kendall Square rezoning by the city’s Community Development Department shows a large residential tower 500 feet high.

From Bjorn Poonen, June 30: Cambridge residents have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve a public park as the city rezones a 14-acre site in Kendall LetterSquare. Such a park will likely be included in the plan only if residents write to the city to demand it.

The 14-acre site bounded by Broadway, Third and Binney streets and the Officer William Loughrey Walkway (excluding 285 Third St.) houses the John A. Volpe Transportation Center, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The federal government hopes soon to enter into an agreement allowing a private developer to develop part of this land in exchange for funds enabling it to build a new facility on a part of the site to replace its deteriorating buildings. The government plans to retain four of the 14 acres and construct a replacement 400,000-square-foot building there. The other 10 acres become subject to city zoning.

The existing zoning for this site calls for a 7.5-acre public park, and such a park has been recommended repeatedly in city studies over many years (see, e.g., Page 84 of the K2C2 final report from December 2013).

But on May 27, the Planning Board submitted a rezoning proposal that would change this dramatically.

It would remove completely the existing requirement of a contiguous public park, and at the same time reduce the required public open space to 3.5 acres, which is diminished further by the proposal to allow open space on the federally retained area to count toward this. The four acres retained by the government may already contain 3.5 acres of open space (its building would likely not occupy much more than a half-acre footprint), which would mean the amount of non-federal open space would be effectively reduced to zero! As pointed out by residents Rosemary Booth and Gerald O’Leary in a letter to the city, the city would have no way to guarantee that federal open space would remain accessible to the public. Therefore it is important that the rezoning proposal be revised to require non-federal open space.

The best place for a public park on the site would be its southeast rectangle at Third Street and Broadway, where it would be most visible and serve as an entry point for those coming via Point Park or Broad Canal Way; this rectangle currently contains a playground and parking lot. But the new proposal calls instead for a “continuous retail presence,” which would form a wall isolating any open space from the rest of Kendall Square.

Another problem: Its Section removes the text “that the orientation and location of the proposed structure would not otherwise diminish the health and safety of the area around the development parcel” as a criterion in reviewing proposals for tall buildings, and the language in that section in general is being weakened to make it closer to “anything goes.” This is disturbing, given that the new proposal also proposes increasing height limits, allowing even a 500-foot building (nearly twice the height of the tallest existing building in Cambridge). Trading several medium-height buildings for a 500-foot building may make sense if it would lead to more open space, but health and safety criteria should still be taken seriously in any such decision.

The rezoning proposal is not all bad. The redevelopment of the Volpe site would also bring many benefits to the city, including new housing, additional retail, additional tax revenue, etc. So the rezoning proposal should not simply be discarded. But we need to insist that it be revised to make the area livable instead of only a conglomeration of tall buildings. Must the development potential really be increased to the extent permitted in the new proposal to make the federal plan viable? It seems clear that the answer is no: The city has estimated that the new proposal would allow more than 3 million square feet of private development – which seems extreme, given that the goal is to pay for only a 400,000-square-foot federal building.

The proposed zoning has been submitted to the City Council and will become law as written if the council votes to approve it.

Before this happens, I urge Cambridge residents to write to the city to:

bullet-gray-small insist on a substantial contiguous public park at Third Street and Broadway;

bullet-gray-small disallow counting federal land toward the open space requirement;

bullet-gray-small remove a “continuous retail presence along Third Street and Broadway” as a goal;

bullet-gray-small retain the health and safety criteria for height review in unweakened form.

Letters may be emailed to the Planning Board here and here and City Council here. (Cambridge residents should include their address in their letters.) Alternatively, letters may be sent by regular mail to the City Clerk’s Office, Attn: Donna Lopez, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139.