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Paul McMorrow

Volpe Center — Cambridge’s white elephant

The Volpe Center in Kendall Square is used as a research and development center for federal transportation agencies.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

The Volpe Center in Kendall Square is used as a research and development center for federal transportation agencies.

The US Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center is a little slice of suburbia in Cambridge: 14 acres of surface parking lots, unused lawns, and commercial sprawl on Broadway, in the dead center of Kendall Square. There was a time when Cambridge was lucky to have the Volpe Center. But no longer.

Cambridge residents and city officials have long chafed at the Volpe’s presence. The problem isn’t the center itself, which operates as a research and development facility for federal transportation agencies. The problem is the campus it’s housed on.

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Kendall Square is built on connectivity. It is a giant network of scientists and developers and engineers, and the square gets better as it gets bigger. The Volpe Center is the biggest physical obstacle to Kendall’s future development. So for years, Cambridge has waged a quiet campaign to shove the Department of Transportation off portions of the Volpe campus.

As a landowner, the federal government isn’t easily moved. But last week it said it wants to trade surplus land at the Volpe Center to a developer willing to build it a modern research campus in Kendall Square. This complicated real estate trade will take years to complete, but it will allow Cambridge to move forward by erasing one of the last vestiges of the old Kendall Square.

In the 1960s, Kendall, like many pockets of Cambridge and Boston, was economically listless and physically decaying. The square was full of obsolete factories and oil tanks. So Cambridge turned to the bulldozer, and the promise of government-driven construction. A 1964 urban renewal program cleared 29 acres north of MIT’s campus for a flagship NASA complex. The hope was that the government’s space program could give new life to a neighborhood that traditional industry was leaving behind.

NASA only got around to building on half that acreage before its Cambridge outpost was shut down in 1969. Its exit left Cambridge staring at a white elephant: an empty government-owned tower surrounded by bulldozed, vacant land. The Department of Transportation’s decision to sweep in and take over the complex was the best outcome Cambridge could have hoped for at the time. But the DOT’s Volpe Center was grossly out of scale with all the development that followed it. And the more Kendall Square grows, the worse the Volpe gets.

Cambridge’s original urban renewal plan envisioned private developers piggybacking off NASA. But the real catalyst has been MIT. Proximity to MIT drove Boston Properties to build its Cambridge Center office complex decades ago on land originally cleared for NASA, and proximity to MIT drove Google’s recent Cambridge Center expansion project.

Biogen just wrapped up an expansion project next door to the Volpe Center. Several hundred new apartments run past the Volpe’s eastern edge, up a stretch of Third Street that used to be lifeless. A row of new lab buildings along Binney Street is pushing Kendall Square’s boundary north. Kendall Square has emerged in recent years as one of the most important commercial hubs in the country. Years of effort have turned it into a genuinely great place to eat or live. And amid all this activity, sitting a block from the Red Line station, and in the middle of a sea of wasted space, sits the Volpe Center.

The Boston area is full of spaces like the Volpe — public complexes built in the 1960s and 1970s on the assumption that cities needed government construction, on a massive scale, to rescue their downtowns. Many were designed so badly that they’ve ended up holding back the neighborhoods they were supposed to revive. But from Government Center in Boston to Malden Center to Kendall Square, these spaces are in retreat. The federal government’s decision to relinquish its parking lots and single-story buildings at the Volpe Center is another blow against the excesses of urban renewal. It’s an admission that the best thing government can do for modern cities is to literally get out of the way.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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