Gas transfer station is removed in proposal for 250-foot lab tower with public arts space
While Cambridge will never get its long-promised Constellation Center, what could go in its place – a 250-foot, three-tiered lab tower with 40,000 square feet of public arts and culture space at its base – offers something new: removal of an aging Eversource gas transfer station from Kendall Square’s showpiece Third Street.
Tech philanthropist Glenn KnicKrehm had promised a grand concert hall at 585 Third St. since the 1990s. Ultimately he sold the lot after long delays saw construction estimates soar to $300 million or higher during decades of research into acoustics.
BioMed Realty bought the fenced-in gravel pit in August 2018 for $50.5 million as part of its 10 acres now known as the Canal District. Then began 18 months of study and public outreach to come to a new proposal for the 35,865-square-foot lot at Kendall and Athenaeum streets. The company hopes to win a rezoning and special permit, starting construction in March 2022 for an opening in 2024, according to a presentation shown Thursday.
That’s when the public would get access to 30,000 square feet for arts and culture, including rooms and halls for rehearsals, workshops, meetings and for use as maker spaces, and an additional 10,000 square feet of all-season, flexible space “for exhibits, indoor movie nights, winter market, fundraisers and more.” Some $5 million in improvements to outdoor open space is planned, with the building intended to be green in every sense so people can “be in touch with nature,” according to the presentation, and “there are no barriers between inside and outside” – what the company calls its “biophilia” approach. It would add lavish indoor greenery, but also exterior walls that can be opened to such a degree that air conditioning may not be necessary in warmer months. The proposal includes around an acre of open space, architects said.
It should “almost feel like we’re creating a park, not a building,” architect Kishore Varanasi said during the presentation Thursday, calling the structure an “iconic, special presence” for Kendall Square.
The centerpiece is a 300-seat theater, its stage exposed in a jewel box platform floating in a three-story atrium. The size is called perfect for uses such as the North Cambridge Family Opera (a secondary theater space seating around 150 is also proposed) and rehearsal spaces will accommodate dancers and others being displaced from Central Square, but whether there will be long-term residencies for arts companies is “TBD,” BioMed officials say. Rental prices are, like the building, intended to be tiered to ensure affordability.
Early exterior designs by CBT Architects envision a golden-sheened structure unique among Kendall Square buildings for its terraced structure with curved facades – three chunks of lab space wedding cake stretching from Termeer Square and other Canal District open space to Third Street. There retail and community space is imagined as meshing into a streetscape with the Za restaurant and residences on one side and Tatte Bakery & Cafe on the other. Under KnicKrehm’s plans for the Constellation Center, that would have remained a grubby, barely concealed gas transfer station, running 150 feet along Third Street, said Salvatore J. Zinno, vice president for development at BioMed Realty.
“The first thing I did was walk into Eversource” with a plan to move the transfer station, Zinno said, “and they laughed at me.”
Removal of the relic of a former Kendall Square – the proposed building will rely on steam, and have no gas connection – depends on winning rezoning for the lot, since now what’s allowed is the same arts use that defeated KnicKrehm. The public and arts space represents around a $50 million expense, including fit-out with the technology needed for theater, dance, concerts, recording studios, movie screenings and other uses, Zinno said, but it’s the lab space overhead costing hundreds of millions more that will make the arts possible, including the hiring of an executive director to serve as “mayor of the space” and keep performances and other community uses cycling through.
“You need the zoning to create the value,” Zinno said. Imagining the Constellation Center being built and operating without subsidization from lab or office space, “what ticket prices does that translate to?”
“There is a reason it didn’t happen,” Zinno said.
While the Constellation Center was envisioned as 85,000 square feet rising as high as 120 feet, the BioMed building is proposed at 550,000 square feet going as high as 250 feet – about 30 feet higher than some surrounding buildings, though 300-foot structures are just blocks away. The first tier is planned to rise only to a stepped-back 85 feet on Third Street, and “pulling in the edges creates” not just a narrower building with a more open feel, but “more options for open space,” Zinno said. The building is asymmetrical, with terrace gardens bigger on the Termeer Square side than on Third Street.
No dedicated parking is proposed, because BioMed’s Canal District has parking garages with some 2,238 spaces. They are not filled at peak hours, and though BioMed will have to argue that all workers driving to the lab space can be accommodated, the arts functions are unlikely to add to the problem: Most performances will be at night or weekends, when the surround labs and offices are closed.
The zoning and special permitting process is certain to raise by-now familiar conflicts over traffic and parking – despite access to the red line Kendall Square T stop and other mass transit options – and residents who will be displaced by workers filling 510,000 new square feet of lab space. But Zinno said BioMed’s option to buy the Eversource transfer station could be a significant factor in the conversation.
“It’s hard to imagine it’s been inaccessible for decades,” Zinno said of the space known as Parcel C. In addition to just being a bare, gravel pit surrounded by chain-link fence, “The gas transfer station has been in our way.”
“The facility is approaching the end of its useful life,” but Eversource needs inducement to let it be moved instead of rebuild it for decades more of use in the heart of Kendall Square, Zinno said.