Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A rendering of the Third Street Park park planned for the Volpe parcel in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Image: Mitimco)

Issues about open space continue to hold back the 14-acre Volpe project in Kendall Square, with Cambridge Planning Board members questioning design of a Third Street Park that seems to further shrink what’s offered on a site where neighbors once expected a 7.5-acre central park.

Only part of the site plans from developer Mitimco – for a building – were approved 7-0 by the board Sept. 26, with approval for the park held back. Developers will need board approval for the open space before getting a building permit.

The approved Building C1 at Fifth Street and Broadway is a 16-story lab and office building of 437,700 square feet; its approximately 12,000 square feet on the ground floor will include retail.

Third Street Park is an approximately 1-acre space fronting the building that will include bike lanes, preserve old oak trees and plant some new trees. It will add bike parking, allow for a dedicated bus lane on Third Street and include a 2,000-square-foot pavilion for food.

A 16-story lab and office building approved by the Planning Board for the Volpe site. (Image: Mitimco)

Mitimco, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s real estate arm, has changed plans for the park in this most recent iteration to make it more publicly accessible and increase its size slightly from 0.78 acres.

Despite calls from neighbors for increased greenery and recommendations from 2001 to 2013 for a 7.5-acre park, the Volpe plan requires a total of 3.5 acres of open space – of which just 2 acres will be permanently for public use and what people usually think of when imagining “open space.”

Volpe, named after the federal transportation agency that sold its own land in exchange for a new, smaller space of its own on the site, is also known as Planned Unit Development 7, a grouping of sites. Similar to master plans for individual buildings, PUDs determine how structures, parks, public works and other design elements fit together toward overall urban design goals. According to the PUD-7 ordinance passed by Cambridge in 2017, the district “is intended to provide for the creation of a vibrant mixed-use district of high-quality general and technical office and retail activity, with significant components of residential use and open space.”

The board’s most recent approval means one step toward construction for one site in a three-building first phase approved by the board in 2021. The phase includes another commercial building and a residential building with a community center.

Residents’ open space concerns

Although Planning Board members ultimately approved the building itself, the attached park continued to be a sticking point. Only two residents spoke at the meeting, but both opposed the project partially due to open space concerns.

One, Heather Hoffman, said she felt neighbors had not been listened to – MIT’s planners allowed comments only in writing, and that “we were promised a seven-and-a-half acre park. And I will not quit reminding the Planning Board and city officials and everybody else at MIT that that was the promise – for years.”

Hoffman framed her concerns around the expected increase in population density that will come from Volpe, with the developer’s proposed acreage, she said, not sufficient to cover potentially tens of thousands of newcomers in Kendall Square. She added that while she was happy mature oaks would be preserved, the developer remained silent about how many trees would be cut down.

Another commenter who did not give his name noted – and was echoed by board member Adam Westbrook – that a pavilion in the corner of the park cut down on open space even more. Member Lou Bacci agreed, saying the pavilion had grown “rather large” and could be replaced with either a smaller version or even occasional food trucks.

“Should there be a pavilion?”

Board members had more questions about open space and how the facade of the building, with its greenish coloring, would actually look. Diego Macias noted that the penthouse appeared relatively opaque compared with the rest of the building in some renderings, while it matched better in other renderings – but he and others were generally excited about the structure.

Vice chair Catherine Preston Connolly, acting as chair, said she and other board members felt comfortable approving the building since the Cambridge Development Department would continue to work with the developer.

That did not need to include approval of the park, city staff told the board. “There does seem to be this kind of bigger question of should there be a pavilion at all? If there is, could it be smaller and could we get more green space here?” Connolly said.