The Volpe block is the last remaining major parcel in Kendall Square, and in many ways the missing link. At 14 acres, it is large enough to activate and connect the entire area, creating a more complete urban fabric. For this to happen, it’s crucial that the site not be developed as a private enclave, but rather with public streets and blocks.
As the centerpiece of the Volpe site, I see a major open space framed by a dense mix of uses. My vision is less the Cambridge Common and more like Washington Square Park in New York City, a leafy urban room focused on a landmark — its wonderful arch. This is a space shared and loved by residents, office workers, and students alike, connected by streets into the fabric of its neighborhood.
At the Volpe site, housing should be an important component of the mix, populating the public realm. Also important would be more high-tech and lab development, which is central to the life and image of Kendall Square, where space for such uses is running out.
I envision restaurants and shops on the ground floors of these projects, lining the streets and public space. A supermarket should be among these. It is sorely needed. Finally, a jazz club and entertainment would be good, to attract young people.
After studying the block for many years with students at MIT’s Center for Real Estate, I’m convinced that all of the above is achievable. But to accommodate all these uses and make room for a great public space on the ground, it will require somewhat denser, taller buildings than we currently see in Kendall Square.
We shouldn’t be afraid of these. After all, the Volpe block sits virtually on top of the Kendall Square T Station. It’s already a global destination for creative minds and the high-tech culture. What better place for a vibrant and visible new landmark in our city?
Dennis Frenchman, an architect and city planner, is Leventhal Professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT.
Dan Nowiszewski | The venture capitalist
Should the acreage surrounding the Volpe Center in Kendall Square become available for redevelopment, the residents of East Cambridge, first and foremost, need to be the ultimate decision makers. Too often, the interests of state, county, and city governments, corporations, and developers have trumped the desires of residents.
Former Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino’s insistence that the people of East Boston have a unique, unilateral vote regarding casino development in their neighborhood was a bold move and the right call. Unfortunately, when redevelopment opportunities have arisen for prime real estate in and near Kendall Square, East Cambridge residents have usually received a courteous voice at the table, only to be pushed aside as tax revenues and corporate profits guide final decisions.
Most of the prime real estate in Kendall Square is gone, but it’s not too late for Cambridge officials to follow the lead of Mayor Menino. If the Volpe site is to be redeveloped, the residents of East Cambridge should get the same decision-making authority granted to the people of East Boston.
As someone who grew up in East Cambridge and now works in Kendall Square, I would encourage city planners to be bold in their vision. The city is blessed with a vibrant local economy and robust tax collections, putting it on strong financial footing for the foreseeable future. That should allow for creative, visionary planning that could redefine this soulless acreage for future generations.
The quality of life for residents should be paramount. Specifically, the neighborhood does not need more bland biotech boxes. The majority of the site should include multiuse, contiguous open space that could uniquely position Kendall Square as a desirable place to work and live. I would encourage residents and city officials to learn from the experiences of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and create a green landscape that is usable, inviting, and similar to other great urban landscapes.
Imagine the equivalent of the Boston Public Garden, featuring sculpted gardens, leisurely water flows, original art, and engaging recreational opportunities, sitting in the middle of Kendall Square.
The remaining property should include low-rise affordable housing, designated entrepreneurial office space, and much-needed retail. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a grocery store and pharmacy in Kendall Square?
This is just one vision, which may or may not be right. Ultimately, the right vision will come from the people most affected, the residents of East Cambridge.
Dan Nowiszewski (a.k.a. Nova) is an East Cambridge native and general partner with Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm located in Kendall Square.
Bill Jacobson | The entrepreneur
The Volpe site has 14 acres, smack in the middle of one of the world’s greatest centers of innovation, but much of that property is lying fallow. To make better use of it, and add to the community, culture, and character of Kendall Square, here are a few ideas:
■ Create a public magnet high school focused on technology, design, and entrepreneurship and do it with the support of MIT, Harvard, Microsoft, Facebook, Biogen, Novartis, Google, Akamai, and other organizations. The new school would take a campus approach, with a relatively small physical building to be used as a central gathering place and core teaching facility. Meanwhile, many more kids would be accommodated by the supporting companies holding regular classes at their local offices. This would make it easy for professionals to get involved — as easy as going to a meeting in the conference room down the hall.
■ Turn a good amount of the space into a four-season urban farm cooperative supported by area restaurants and markets. It would including a greenhouse, some livestock, and vegetable gardens. Primo Restaurant, which serves food grown on its own farm in Rockland, Maine, is a model.
■ Set aside a parcel as the Kendall XPark. It would largely be a public park, but also include a smallish (about 10,000 square feet) structure to serve as a residence and work center. Every year, through a public-private partnership, there would be competition to pick 10 or so people to live and work out of this space and compete for an Energy & Environment Xprize, a large cash prize awarded for breakthroughs in energy, climate change, and water resource management.
The park would double as testing grounds for the group’s inventions and experiments. The winner of the Xprize would kick some of the money back into the XPark to help support operational cost.
■ Remember man’s best friend. Leave room for a co-working dog park, complete with fenced-in lawn and shaded charging station tables and chairs for working while your dog runs around like a maniac. We could call it Workbarks!
Bill Jacobson is the chief executive of Workbar, a membership-based network of collaborative workspaces with main hubs in Boston and Cambridge.
Abby Fichtner | The hacker
Why do we have land sitting empty in Massachusetts’ center of innovation while all of the entrepreneurs are being forced out around it by ever-increasing rents? Why not use it instead for providing:
1. Education, resources, and community to keep innovation in Kendall Square. We could build or sponsor a community makerspace, a place where people can share tools and ideas, make connections, and build electronics, robotics, and more. Think innovation-themed community center where anyone can come to learn, build, and collaborate with others in a culture of invention and creation. There’s no reason that Boston, home to MIT and over 100 robotics companies, shouldn’t be a leader in robotics and the emerging hardware revolution.
2. Affordable housing to keep students here after graduation. Why can’t we provide options for graduating students who want to try their hand at creating the next big thing but can’t afford the rent? One model we could look to is Krash, a network of shared living spaces in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Washington. Krash offers shared housing for young entrepreneurs while immersing them in a culture of innovation and connecting them with the Greater Boston startup community.
3. Training to address the skills gap. If we build an innovation-themed community center with training space, we could host organizations like Startup Institute, which train people with the skills emerging companies need (e.g., design, development . . . ) and help our local companies find talent by connecting them with their graduates. Or we could start even younger — why shouldn’t Boston lead the way in STEM elementary schools? And what better place to do that than next to MIT?
Abby Fichtner is hacker-in-residence at Harvard Innovation Lab and creator of Hack Boston.