A proposed Third Street Park on the Volpe site in Kendall Square would be 0.78 acres including some kiosks on Broad Canal Way, according to details given at a Tuesday meeting of the Planning Board. (Image: Design Distill)

A 14-acre Volpe site redevelopment won unanimous preliminary approval Tuesday from seven Planning Board members, essentially ending debate about an approach to open space at the site. Where a Community Development Department process had prescribed a 7.5-acre park in 2001 – and a “K2” study confirmed the idea in 2013 – became zoning calling for less than half that, now broken up into four spaces on the parcel.

If the board hadn’t given approval at the end of a meeting stretching past four hours, the special permit application would have been considered denied, ending a process begun when the federal government chose the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as redeveloper for its transportation center site in 2016; approval means MIT can submit a final development plan. With approval, “the main focus of the board’s deliberation should be on what modifications, information or additional study should be included” for a final decision down the road, said Jeff Roberts, director of zoning and development.

The site’s 455,750 square feet (excluding what will remain federal property) has four mainly residential buildings containing 1,400 apartments, four mostly commercial and lab buildings, two retail areas, a community center and an indoor/outdoor entertainment venue – and four main open space areas: a Third Street park; community center park; Sixth Street park; and Binney Street park. All told, the project has around 3.5 acres of “publicly beneficial” open space, of which 2 is guaranteed permanently for public use, according to site documents.

“These four new public parks are the glue. These are the places that bring people together, and host casual encounters and planned events that welcome the neighborhood and are an inclusive attraction for all,” said David Manfredi, of Elkus Manfredi Architects, during the night’s presentation.

The Volpe parcel’s proposed open space. (Image: Mitimco)

Though the plan was arrived at through dozens of public meetings and had been “well received” by many people, presenters said, some residents and Planning Board members remained skeptical Tuesday.

The showpiece open space at Third Street and Broadway is described as being an “approximately 1-acre park including the pedestrian-focused Broad Canal Way,” which Manfredi later explained was really 0.78 acres including the footprint of kiosks on Broad Canal Way “as is allowed by the [zoning’s] definition of open space.”

“We can talk later about whether that is approximately an acre,” board member H Theodore Cohen said. Even by enlarging the community center park by moving some of the center into a neighboring building, “I had difficulty calling that a park. It’s a little bit of a plaza before the building. Similarly, Sixth Street Park, you know, it’s a walkway.”

A community center park proposed for Volpe is “a little bit of a plaza,” Planning Board member H Theodore Cohen said. (Image: Design Distill)

Reflecting other members’ concerns about green space “squeezed” between buildings, he was the least impressed by the plan seen Tuesday. “I’ve always felt that the breaking up of the parkway and the open space was really not a successful way of achieving a nice open space,” he said. Vice chair Mary Flynn shared worries that the Third Street Park would be less used than people expected, considering the cars speeding past on the busy Kendall Square streets and stopped at an intersection serving as kind of a gateway for Boston traffic.

“The community said, ‘We want the corner,’” explained Anthony Galluccio, a Cambridge lawyer representing the project.

The Volpe open space makes more sense as part of an overall map of greenery in the area, he said, suggesting board members look within a “15-minute radius.” Intense programming of the spaces could also make up for small sizes – senior yoga in the mornings, after-school programs for kids later – according to his descriptions Tuesday. “We could program it to bring folks to it for particular uses. All the time, there are some understandings about how the space gets used,” Galluccio said.

“You know, you could have salsa – everything is salsa,” Galluccio said.

“Takes some thinking about”

The logistics of using the open space in that network of greenery could also seem daunting. Board member Tom Sieniewicz wondered how to direct people to open space that was perhaps as little as 300 feet away but could be found only by passing through a Marriott hotel lobby.

Sentiment on the board ran all the way to Hugh Russell’s view that the open space plan was “brilliant [but] takes some thinking about and getting used to and thinking about how people are really going to use it.” In his understanding, the zoning called for 2.6 acres of open space and the plan fulfilled that, with “other spaces that function as open spaces.”

While Russell was convinced the provided open space was adequate because not many people would seek to use it at once, others were sure the available greenery would fill up quickly – but, as Steven Cohen put it, with “the thousands of folks working in these buildings. Whether that space will be large enough or attractive enough for … people from other neighborhoods,” he said, “I’m a bit skeptical.”

Growing density

Several residents during public comment said the parks needed to be bigger to accommodate just the crush of people living in the immediate area.

The need for “a 2-acre park at Third Street, it’s absolutely essential,” said Catherine Zusy, of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association and Magazine Beach Partners. “East Cambridge has the least amount of open space in the city … and now development is projected to bring another 20,000 people to Kendall by 2030, almost 10,000 residents and workers at the Volpe site alone. Where will all these people go?” Kendall will have a living and commuting population of about 70,000 people, including 1,000 children, within the decade, she said.

Cambridgeport, with about 12,000 people, has access not only to a 1.3-acre Dana Park but the 17-acre Magazine Beach, she said.

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