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Innovation Economy

Making better use of parcel in Kendall Square

In December, a City of Cambridge planning study proposed several possibilities for future development of the Volpe Center site.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In December, a City of Cambridge planning study proposed several possibilities for future development of the Volpe Center site.

Before it was home to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, before Johnson & Johnson arrived, before Biogen and Genzyme, before the Cambridge Innovation Center and the venture capital firms, Kendall Square was a vast wasteland.

“It was really a blighted area,” recalls Thad Tercyak, who joined the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority in the 1960s. “There was no private investment going on. Manufacturing in Kendall had deteriorated — you had all these old factories that hadn’t been modernized — and businesses were going out to the suburbs.”

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So when NASA announced it would plant a research center in Kendall, most people were ecstatic. Not only would Cambridge be home to hundreds or thousands of NASA employees, but the city also would play a supporting role in the space race. In 1966, the federal government bought its first acre of land in Kendall, for $81,000. The government eventually purchased about 15 acres for a total of $1.6 million.

Today, that property is home to a different federal agency — the Department of Transportation’s Volpe Research Center, which employs about 1,000 people. But as Kendall Square has grown into the East Coast’s innovation hub, it has become obvious that the sprawling Volpe Center campus is a void at the heart of it.

This is some of the most valuable real estate in Massachusetts — easily worth north of $100 million, by some estimates — and much of it is used for parking lots and lawns that are untrammeled by human feet. Politicians have tried to pry the underused property from the feds since at least the era of Tip O’Neill, the late speaker of the US House. But with Kendall Square becoming too pricey for young companies or their workers, it’s time to finally move things forward.

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We need to better integrate the Volpe Center itself into the fabric of Kendall, and make better use of the approximately 10 acres of land that insulate it from the neighborhood like layers of bubble wrap. Most of the Volpe campus is surrounded by tall hedges, Jersey barriers, guard posts, or chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

First, a correction. A popular story about Kendall’s history is retold regularly: that it was intended to be NASA’s Mission Control until President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, at which point, Houston won out because the next president, Lyndon Johnson, hailed from Texas. Johnson did play a role in making sure that Houston had a major part in the space program, but the Texas city was picked as the site of the Manned Spacecraft Center while Kennedy was still alive.

Cambridge was chosen to get NASA’s Electronics Research Center. (MIT’s Draper Laboratory was already working on guidance computers for the Apollo spacecraft, and several NASA officials had ties to MIT and Harvard.) The Electronics Research Center opened in 1964, focusing on developing systems for communications, information display, and automated spacecraft landings.

But five years after it opened, President Nixon announced that the Kendall Square center would shut down, amid other budget cuts at NASA. (It remains the only NASA site ever to be closed.) NASA built only six of 14 planned buildings, and never occupied the additional dozen or so acres that had been set aside for it.

After several months of hand-wringing, the Department of Transportation took over the site, and hired many of the former NASA researchers. (The red brick Cambridge Center buildings near the Kendall Square T, including the Marriott Hotel, were eventually built on that surplus land set aside for NASA.)

Today, the Volpe Center is basically a contract research group for various arms of the federal government. It works on important topics like air traffic control systems, automobile emissions standards, safer railroad crossings, and technologies to help cars avoid collisions. But it sits on a campus designed for a time when land was cheap and neighbors were few. And it occupies a huge chunk of Kendall. When I walked the perimeter of the property last Thursday, it took 15 minutes.

The opportunity is to use Volpe’s wasted space — parking lots, lawn, and low-lying buildings — to build on Kendall’s strengths and solve some of its problems. Kendall is attractive right now to large companies like Shell, Google, Facebook, and Samsung that want to set up engineering or R&D outposts to tap local talent. And it’s attractive to biopharma companies that like the proximity to MIT, Harvard, and one another.

But it’s an expensive place to start and grow a company, and it’s an expensive place to live. (A one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in a new building like the Watermark rents for $3,500 a month.) There’s no grocery or pharmacy, and no park that people actually use.

The best case scenario would involve the Department of Transportation selling much of its land, under the supervision of Cambridge’s Community Development Department, and using the proceeds to build a new facility on a small part of it, with underground parking for employees. The Transportation Department said in a statement that it is examining options for site.

In December, the Cambridge Community Development Department issued a report that lays out a vision for the future of Kendall Square, including the Volpe Center. The city’s plan for the Volpe site involves a large park and housing. I’d like to see some of the housing geared to the needs of the postcollegiate set: the twentysomethings who are starting companies and working for startups. Think of it as apres-dorm, with communal lounges or kitchens, and perhaps some workspace for late-night coding sessions.

The new park ought to have spots for food and retail trucks (which occasionally grow into brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants). This corner of Kendall also needs office space for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. And it ought to be a requirement that any retailers who operate on the site use the stores as testing grounds for new technologies.

If there’s a Walgreens, for instance, it should be one that collaborates with local entrepreneurs working on iPad cash registers or new kinds of digital signage. Kendall should aspire to be a magnet for the world’s smartest, most creative entrepreneurs, and this enormous “innovation block” can play a major part in that strategy. I think it has the potential to become the heart of Kendall Square.

What it lacks is a leader. There are plenty of folks trying to move the ball forward, including Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung, Tim Rowe of the Cambridge Innovation Center, and Tom Evans at the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority. But we need someone like a US senator or Governor Deval Patrick to take this over the goal line. US Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville has worked the issue in the past, but it doesn’t seem to be a high priority for him now.

Redeveloping the Volpe Center campus “isn’t a new idea,” says Brian Murphy, head of Cambridge’s Community Development Department. “But when you look at the revenue needs of the federal government, and the untapped development potential in this white-hot real estate market, my hope is that the stars are aligned this time.”

The federal government helped make Kendall Square what it is today, by investing in the neighborhood almost 50 years ago. But to help the area continue cranking out scientific breakthroughs, new technologies, and fast-growing companies, we need just the opposite: We need the government to divest.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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