A number of us have met with Volpe and GSA officials to get some early ideas about what the Feds are thinking. The short version is this:
- The Volpe houses the National Transportation Systems Center, part of the Federal Department of Transportation. There are about 500 unionized workers (who don’t want to leave the site) and another 500 or so contractors who work on all sorts of transportation research there, to include airline safety, railroad simulators and so forth. They are the only people in the country, and to some extent the world, who do this sort of thing. Congress, however, gives them no money. They have to make all of their money by charging other agencies for their services.
- Their current campus is about 45 years old, consisting of one tall building and a number of smaller ones. They find it an awkward and outdated place to do their research, plus it is physically in tough shape. They are hoping to enter, with the General Services Administration (GSA) as their agent, into an agreement with a developer to build them a new center someplace on the Volpe complex, work they would pay for by giving the developer the land not used for the future Volpe buildings. On this land, roughly 10 acres of the 14 acre site, the developer would build something big enough to cover the costs of both the Volpe development and the civilian development next to it. While the City cannot zone the property that will remain with the Volpe site, roughly 4 acres, we can zone the property that will be turned over to the developer and Volpe does not want us to zone it in a way the makes it impossible for them to find a developer to do the project for them.
- If, for whatever reason, Volpe cannot find a developer to do this work, they would stay where they are. It is possible, as time went on, that the state of the buildings would force them to move their work elsewhere. They don’t want to do that, but it is a possibility. At that point, the property would become available to other Federal agencies (who could do whatever they wanted on the property without any oversight by the City), then available for homeless services under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and then, as I understand it to the State and, if still not taken, available to the City at market rates. If still available, it would, at that point, go to public auction.
- Volpe apparently does not have any money to fund preliminary studies and architectural drawings, so all of this stuff is kind of opaque now. When they issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) and select a developer, then such things will happen but right now there’s not a lot on paper to look at. That’s a bit concerning to me because, while I understand the mechanics of the deal, the specifics tell me a lot about what future zoning might be able to accomplish that’s best for the City and it’s possible we’ll all be flying somewhat blind unless we have a good idea of what the Volope reconstruction would cost, how it would look and so forth. Looking at all 14 acres, even if we could only zone 10, seems like an important thing to me.
- Volpe is hoping to issue the RFP and get a contract with a developer by the fall of 2016. To do that, they’d have to have zoning in place that worked for the developer and they are hoping to get a zoning petition filed soon (though I think CDD is actually going to file the petition, as they’ve done with other things such as bicycle storage).
- As currently envisioned, even in a very vague sense, this would be a very big project. The City is suggesting the site (the 10 acre part that we can zone) be 40% open space (Open Space comes in various forms though, not all of which is accessible to the general public) and 40% housing. That would be somewhere around 1300 units of housing and about 140 affordable units, give or take, with retail on the ground floor and so forth. The 10 acres would be typical privately owned property in Cambridge, subject to zoning, paying taxes and so forth, while the remaining 4 acres on which the new Volpe would be built would continue to be Federal property.
As an editorial comment, I understand the idea that we have to make a choice here. There is no threat on the table, Volpe does not want to move, but their buildings are no longer working for them and they need a better campus, here or someplace else. If they move and another Federal agency or someone else takes over the site, Cambridge may have far less ability to guide change than it would if the Volpe Center, though a private developer, redevelops the site. Many people would also like to see more housing in Cambridge (especially, according to our 2014 Citizen Satisfaction Survey, affordable housing), but that often seems like a good idea until a big housing project is proposed just down the street. And this is a big project, far bigger than the Mass and Main project under consideration for the former Quest properties at the junction of Mass Ave and Main Street. Many people in nearby buildings would lose their views, there would be traffic impacts, it’s not clear how the open space would function. But, with more people living in the area comes more vitality that many people find exciting in a city, more cafes and restaurants, more activity after business hours, more people watching and so forth. But without having a better idea of what the new Volpe site would look like and how much value there has to be in the transferred land to make the deal work, it’s tough to figure out what the zoning should really look like. The Mass and Main project, for example, has 20% affordable housing, far about the City’s requirements and a level not met by other developments in the City. Could we get that for the Volpe site as well? Tough to say if we don’t have any decent numbers to look at. Similarly, is the proposal of 40% open space enough? And if so, what type? Again, tough to figure out if we are not dealing with more information than we have now.
Still, Volpe wants to move forward quickly with the zoning because, as I understand it, they view having zoning in place as being the keystone of the whole project, so we may wind up having to make a decision with less information than we’d like. To learn more, however imperfect that knowledge might be, come Monday night to City Hall.