Business & Tech

MIT tapped to redevelop Volpe Center in Cambridge

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

The 14-acre Volpe Center in Kendall Square will be redeveloped by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of the biggest prizes in Boston-area real estate went Tuesday to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when US officials tapped the university to redevelop the Volpe Transportation Center in Kendall Square.

MIT beat out a half-dozen major real estate firms for the 14-acre site, which is one of the last remaining big properties that can be redeveloped in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

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It’s unclear what exactly MIT would build there; the US General Services Administration released few details with its announcement and has refused to make public the proposals it received earlier this year. The school itself declined to reveal what it proposed to the GSA.

But the university will first have to build a roughly 400,000-square-foot replacement for the existing government transportation research building on Broadway before receiving the rest of the campus to redevelop. The full project, which will probably include a mix of office and lab space, housing, and retail across at least 1 million square feet, is expected to take a decade or more, and billions of dollars, to finish.

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In a statement, MIT executive vice president Israel Ruiz said the university was “delighted” to win the project and looks forward to working with federal officials, the city, and its Kendall Square neighbors on a detailed plan.

“Naturally, MIT is interested in the future of the site, given its proximity to campus and the important role it plays in supporting the evolution of the innovative, mixed-use community in Kendall Square,” Ruiz said. “The proposed revitalization of the Volpe parcel is a tremendous opportunity.”

A GSA spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on why the agency chose MIT. Last year, as part of a broader push to partner with private developers to rebuild aging federal buildings, it launched a nationwide competition for the Volpe Site, with the goal of naming a developer before the end of the Obama administration.

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The university has deep experience developing in Kendall Square. Its real estate arm owns a number of office and lab buildings in and around the neighborhood, and its nonacademic holdings make it the largest taxpayer in Cambridge.

MIT is already deep into a major building plan in Kendall, just a few blocks from the Volpe Center and almost as large. The $1.2 billion project includes six buildings on Main Street that will include new offices, housing, and a “gateway” to MIT’s campus at the Kendall Red Line Station. The university expects to begin construction in the coming months after winning final approval from Cambridge in May.

Planning for the Main Street effort involved eight years of careful conversations with neighbors and the city, said Iram Farooq, Cambridge assistant city manager for community development. The deep relationships that MIT built from that process should help make the Volpe project a success, she said, and perhaps more quickly.

“They had to work hard over a number of years with residents and other businesses in the neighborhood,” she said. “That’s good. They’ve done this before. They have a track record.”

The university is also deeply invested in the neighborhood, according to Alexandra Lee, executive director of the Kendall Square Association, who said MIT officials have been able to propose high-quality developments without pricing out the growing, innovative companies that help drive Kendall’s economy.

“There’s a bit of a missing piece right now between the startups and the global companies. How do we allow for midsize firms to thrive here,” said Lee, whose business group includes MIT among its members. “They’re really smart about that stuff.”

Affordable space for growing companies is probably just one of many priorities that Cambridge officials will require of MIT at the Volpe project as they consider new zoning for the site.

MIT understands ‘how to work in Cambridge. With something this big and intricate, that can really pay off.’

Greg Vasil, Greater Boston Real Estate Board chief executive 
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Several City Council members have pushed for large-scale housing development there, while others want a large portion of the property set aside as open space.

Although several other big Kendall Square developers pursued the Volpe, no one can match MIT’s century of experience at building in Cambridge, said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. That will fare them well as the complex project moves forward. Indeed, Vasil said, that history may well be why they won it.

“They understand how to work in Cambridge,” he said. “With something this big and intricate, that can really pay off.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.
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