Volpe Center

Today I met with Dave Ishihara, Deputy Associate Administrator for Operations at the US Department of Transportation and John Kelly of the General Services Administration, both leading the Volpe Center redevelopment. The Volpe Center serves as the national transportation research center for the Department of Transportation and is based right here in Cambridge at 55 Broadway St. It works on the cutting edge of transportation technology, making new technologies and anticipating the future needs of transportation systems and networks. What’s so cool about Volpe, is that the site works across disciplines including industrial engineering, aeronautics, economics, information technology—and also works across industries. This cultural commitment to sharing best practices and research inquiries spurs innovation at an incredible pace—and now Volpe has it’s target set on creating buildings and research spaces that better foster this innovative spirit. Given the scale of Volpe’s 14 acre site, this is a tremendous opportunity to both improve the quality of research/innovation space and to secure sustainable community benefit onsite.

 One important financing point for our community to reflect on: Volpe officials plan to sell the majority of their 14 acre site in order to finance their infrastructure improvements. What this means for the community is that, likely, a large commercial developer will want to maximize profit after acquiring the bulk of this site. If we want to assure that this large development aligns with our hopes for Cambridge, we must engage with Volpe and with the acquisition process early. On one hand, we don’t want to put so many constraints on the parcel that Volpe loses profit-margin on their sale. On the other hand, if we as a community let this sale pass us by without making our needs and political intentions (zoning and planning) known, there is always a chance that the best bidder will not end up being the best neighbor. There is a real middle ground here: if we set our expectations now, especially around density and economic/educational community benefit, it is much more likely that this tone will permeate the discussion throughout, in a positive way, for all stakeholders.

 

“As Cambridge residents, we want to be able to be as proud of Volpe, as Houston is of NASA” -David Ishihara  

 As is stands today important research is being impeded by an outdated facility that was designed in the 60’s. One example of the logistical challenges: when shipments arrive on the Volpe campus, they need to be relocated upwards of three times before getting to the intended destination; the buildings just aren’t laid out well. This inefficiency comes from the fact that they have been doing this research in a facility not originally designed for it.

One interesting note about Volpe as a research site is that, despite having a majority of federal employees (as opposed to contractors), this center receives no budget appropriations or funding from congress and runs entirely on a fee for service system. Which has made funding the necessary revamp of this facility impossible, but they can no longer deal with such inefficiency and thus have taken on this radical reimagining of this vast space. Finally, for each of the 500-plus employees, 8 hours each have been budgeted for community service and educational mentorship. While this seems low, it amounts to 4000 person-hours in aggregate - the equivalent of about 2 people working full-time for the Cambridge community. I’m excited to plan with Volpe Center leaders on how this incredible commitment can merge with educational needs and priorities in local neighborhoods, schools, and programs. Now, we must be careful to put in place expectations and guidelines that hold private developers to even higher levels of (infrastructural) community benefit as the process unfolds.

Key Points

  •    Site was originally designed as NASA research facility 1964

  •    President Nixon then ordered it closed 1969

  •   Site was reopened as Volpe Center

  •   Employees 585 federal employees and 450 contractors

  •  Work on all modes of transportation: Aviation, locomotive, and automotive

  • Employees come from wide variety of professions from engineers to economists

  • The current workspace is about 375,000 Sq. Ft. on 14 acres

  • Want to create a more efficient and modern facility to usher in new era of research

  • Want to consolidate acreage and allow the rest to be passed to commercial developer

  • Commercial developers will be in control of large lot

  • Community benefits could include educational space, affordable housing, community centers, focused plan for volunteerism/mentorship amongst commercial tenants

 

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