Weekly Summary - Monday April 6




Hey Cambridge, this is City Councilor Nadeem Mazen coming to you with an update on a special city council round-table meeting on the Volpe site redevelopment that happened on Monday April 6. The Volpe Center is one of the gems of the department of transportation that focuses on research and safety, and it's actually a self funded site; Congress does not appropriate budget for this research. When they want to do something like a redevelopment or when they want to make their operating budget break even in a year, they actually sell services to other government entities. It's a fascinating model and it's really amazing that they are able to do such great work so sustainably.

The question now is: how does an entity like that that is self sustaining redevelop? How can they afford to redevelop? They are on a 15 acre site and they are proposing to make a new 150 to 250 million dollar research facility, state of the art in a five acre plot. And the rest of the acreage, about ten acres, would become part of a quid pro quo developer project. On that PUD (planned unit development) there are K2 standards, standards that have been researched and discussed by the city for what a developer would have to bring to the table in order to meet the city's demands on the ten acres. The federal government, as you may or may not know, is more or less allowed to ignore zoning on their five acres, but that would not be the case for the ten acres that would  become a developer project; in fact the city would have a great deal of control over what is to happen on the developer side of that project. All of this would start in mid to late 2016 so we have some time to get this discussion going. In the meantime, Volpe will be doing a request for qualifications and a request for proposals to get the right developer on board, and it's our job as a council  and as the planning board to begin clarifying any of the questions or concerns we have about the development side of that project and even about the Volpe side to the extent that they are actually really good neighbors and they do want to adhere to a lot of the plans that we do have for that site and the development of that city in general.

My comments on Monday centered around the following. I read thoroughly the proposals for K2 zoning as it affects that plot, and I think it's really important that we understand the costs of development. When developers come in they say, "hey, for us to break even, we have to do this that or the other thing. We have to remove amenities and we have to go up to this height or this bolt because we said so." I think it's important now that we are this far out to clarify the exact costs that Volpe will face and in the five acres that they are making their research on because that will be the main driving factor on the commercial and residential space that a developer says they need to make and how they need to make it. I want to make sure that we have a lot of leverage and a lot of knowledge when we're talking about the community benefits that we want to secure. I want the Volpe center to consolidate and improve upon its service commitments to the neighborhood. I hear Volpe does net-pals with some of the kids, that there are a lot of tourists coming through the Volpe center, but we've been talking a lot about pipelines for kids, how apprenticeships can be even more valuable. And I've been talking about how as federal employees, Volpe center employees are actually encouraged to spend a certain amount of time in service for the community. Could those hours be consolidated? Could Volpe actually hire a street worker to actually engage the neighborhood, the people who we say are "living in the shadow of Kendal Square" without being able to participate in the innovation economy? I have constituents coming to me every day saying they want to participate and they don't necessarily have a place or an invitation to engage. I think it's incumbent on these organizations of means that are developing and are improving and are making lots of money and lots of research impact in this neighborhood to actually engage our families and most importantly our students directly and have personal relationships.

There would be the standard 11.5% of affordable housing here, and the comments in the Community Development Department's notes were that we could increase that number but we should do it in the context of increases across the city. And I disagreed vehemently, but I think in a very accepted and appreciated way on Monday, because this is exactly the type of site where we could do more. If there is going to be height here, if there is going to be more here, if it is going to be off to itself, if we're going to protect open space and if we're all going to be happy with this project, why not also do more for affordable housing? Middle income housing is not guaranteed, but it is an incentive on extra height in going from 250 to 300 feet tall, huge heights on this plot. The developer would be incentivized to go to that extra 300 and we would as a city get 3%. I think it's important that we understand he terms of that incentive; for example, the zoning says that institutional dormitory housing would be excluded even if it was in that last 50 feet of housing. I don't want to lose out on middle income housing just because MIT or Harvard decides to put dorms there. I think we should put one incentive for dormitories in that space, because goodness knows we should be pulling  graduate students out of our neighborhoods and into dorms to the greatest extent possible given our limited housing stock and the housing crisis we're in. But we also need to have the incentive for middle income housing and those two things are not necessarily overlapping; they're both important and they should not come at the cost of one another. We should talk about mom and pop shops, about ground floor retail, about vibrance on the site, about smaller parcel size for storefront retail. And all of those are good, but you still can't start a business in Cambridge in a high rent district unless you're already wealthy or you have investors. If we're really talking about mom-and-pop's, if we're really talking about community businesses, if we're really talking about funky businesses and exciting ways to active that space, then we're not just going to be talking banks and large 5000 square foot or 10000 square foot restaurants, then we absolutely have to talk about how the larger retail operations and the larger development operations will have to subsidy at least for a time the smaller and potentially more vibrant operations. That's just a basic part of designing a development for equity, and it's got to be a huge part of what we discuss.

Open space is potentially going to be about 40% of the project. It seems like there haven't been any serious objections to that on the council. I know some people have pointed to a 7.5 out of 15 acre commitment; as Volpe redevelops on its side and as the 10 acres spins out as its own entity, I think we're recreating what that breakdown will be and right now the zoning looks like 40% open space, which seems to be the largest commitment in any recent project, so it should be a lot of open space. What I want to make sure of is that we don't detract or subtract from that open space by allowing vague language in the zoning. In this case, I'm pushing back against language that seems to say open space could be on a rooftop and could have limited hours, which doesn't really fly for me. If it's going to be on a rooftop it's got to have extended hours and real public access assured and committed. And we can't really say that a service road or a pathways is open space, so I don't want to see a large snaking network of service roads and pathways and loading docks and other things being counted as open space. And I called that out on Monday and I don't think there were any objections.

The last thing is that the Volpe Center is extremely closely involved in the SBIR small business grants program. if we're going to be using small business for innovation and research in our city, as well we should in Cambridge of all places, then I want to understand how Volpe will work with our local businesses to make sure that we are involved in that granting program. Right now it seems that we are heavily involved and I would love to see that come to fruition.

This is a longer update than usual, but I think it's a more comprehensive update on some of the things to look out for in this agreement as it comes up. It definitely behooves us to meet and talk about some of the brass tacks on this, sooner rather than later. Now is the time to get your objections noted; now is the time to read the zoning and the suggestions that have been published as part of that meeting on the city website at cambridgema.gov. Now is the time to reach out to me at nmazen@cambridgema.gov if you don't know where to find those resources or have other questions or ideas. If we do good work now, I think we'll really put some rules, boundaries, and some expectations around this project so that it happens in a way that is extremely beneficial for Kendall Square, for the Volpe Center, whom we want to support, and for all the neighborhoods and residents who will be able to benefit from a redevelopment and an activation of that space. 

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