How NASA almost ended up building a huge campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts


The story of NASA in Kendall Square would be told and retold countless times by locals—even more than fifty years later. People shake their heads and point to the eye-sore compound with a gigantic tower building opposite the Marriott Hotel between Broadway and Binney Street. The most common version of the myth runs something like this: The space agency needed a headquarters, and with Massachusetts’s own John F. Kennedy serving as president of the United States, he arranged for it to be in Kendall Square. The site was built, NASA moved in, but then, after Kennedy’s assassination, new president Lyndon Johnson moved it to his native Texas, where it remains today.

That makes for a nice, neat story—and there is some truth in it. But it misstates what really happened in important ways. Kendall Square was never supposed to have been NASA headquarters. Rather, it was chosen to host the space agency’s Electronics Research Center (ERC), which was built. The ERC opened in September 1964 and was closed less than six years later on June 30, 1970. It was given the axe under the Nixon administration, though, not by Lyndon Johnson. And what few likely realize is that the center never came close to reaching the size and scope it was supposed to have achieved. Had it done so, Kendall Square might be on a dramatically different trajectory than it is today.

The space race was in full bloom in the early 1960s. Russia had launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, shocking the United States with its technological prowess. NASA had been established the following year. In May 1961, barely four months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy had declared to Congress that the United States should set the goal “of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the decade was out. The mission sparked a reorganization of NASA to focus on the manned space imitative. In concert with the restructuring, NASA administrator James Webb and other key officials believed the agency needed to dramatically up its electronics game. “NASA’s fundamental dependence on electronics and its need for internal expertise drove the agency to create an entirely new center, the Electronics Research Center,” a NASA-commissioned historical paper noted.

As the paper continued, “it is not clear how the Boston area was chosen, or even if NASA considered other locations.” However, the long work MIT had done to bolster its ties to the military and other branches of the government served it well. Three of Webb’s top advisors—Associate Administrator Robert Seamans; Raymond Bisplinghoff, director of NASA’s Office of Advanced Research and Technology; and Director of Electronics and Control Albert Kelley — had direct ties to MIT. Seamans had gotten his doctorate at the institute and been an associate professor there (he would later serve as Air Force secretary and return to MIT as dean of engineering); Bisplinghoff had been a professor; and Kelley was a Boston native who had also gotten his doctorate at MIT. Webb himself served on the board of visitors of the Joint Center on Urban Affairs of Harvard and MIT.

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But locating the center near MIT made sense for more objective reasons, given MIT’s decision to cultivate deep expertise in electronics and computing after World War II. “Regardless of the politics, Cambridge was the best logical location for an electronics research facility,” the same historical paper noted. “The area abounded with electronics resources and talent: MIT and Harvard, the industries along Route 128, the Air Force’s Cambridge Research Laboratory and Electronics System Division at Hanscom Field, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the Mitre Corporation, and the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (Draper Lab), which already had undertaken responsibility for the Apollo guidance computer.”

Then there was Kennedy. The president did apparently take a direct hand in the matter, working with Webb to keep the project out of the NASA budget until after his brother Ted Kennedy’s first election to the Senate in November 1962 for fear it might cause problems. “After the President belatedly put the ERC project in the budget process, Congress rebelled,” a different NASA paper noted. “In addition to Republican members, Representatives from the Midwest and other regions feeling swindled out of the NASA largesse repeatedly fought efforts to fund the ERC.”

In the end, though, the plan to locate the center in the Boston area overcame this opposition. The ERC was to be a world-class facility. For its initial budget NASA asked Congress for $3 million for land acquisition and $2 million for design. The envisioned center would ultimately employ a staff of 2,100—among them nine hundred scientists and engineers, seven hundred technical workers, and five hundred in administrative and support positions. Research would be conducted in five major areas: electronics components; guidance and control; systems; instrumentation and data processing; and electromagnetics. NASA estimated it would need twenty-two acres to house the entire operation.

As part of this process, the Army Corps of Engineers had set up a task force to hunt for the right site for the upstart center. By 1963, it came to Robert Rowland’s attention at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, he recalls: “They had at that point investigated I think 165 possible sites in New England, all the way up from Newport up into Maine.” The requirements had been openly published, so Rowland and two colleagues took those and launched their own hunt. It was a bootleg project, done on personal time, as they wanted to keep it quiet in case their quest didn’t bear fruit. Rowland and his small team took photos of various sites, including some of the traffic patterns around Kendall Square—an area Rowland knew well, as he parked his car there to take the subway to Boston when commuting to his job. They soon concluded that the square, with its aging factories, lagging economy, and location next to MIT and just five minutes by transit to Boston, was the ideal location. The success of the Tech Square development also played a role in their thinking. But when Rowland called Bob Simha, the idea he put forth was that the revitalization project necessary to accommodate NASA should be done differently than the way Tech Square had been handled. His view was that the City of Cambridge should create a much bigger urban renewal project that would be almost completely financed by the federal government. MIT would not have to buy any land, but the school’s cooperation was essential, Rowland emphasized. He asked Simha to help bring it all together.

Simha filled in James Killian, who asked for a meeting with various city officials whereby Rowland could present his idea. Allocating a large tract of land for the federal government would take the parcel off the tax rolls. But at the meeting, as Simha related, Rowland “stressed that the project would serve as a catalyst for the economic regeneration of East Cambridge and would create jobs and tax revenue to offset the loss of taxable property devoted to NASA’s research center.” It would be much easier to develop other land to attract tax-paying enterprises if the NASA center was there as another anchor, he argued. 

Under the US Housing Act of 1949, the city could claim land that was classified as blighted or economically depressed and receive federal funding for up to two-thirds of the costs, including relocating and compensating those displaced by the project. That would still leave Cambridge on the hook for the other third, estimated to be more than $5 million—and given that its coffers were still largely depleted, officials were leery. The erosion of the business tax base had shifted much of the tax burden to homeowners, raising an outcry. “It was quite serious, because poorer people were not able to pay the taxes that were being levied because of the shift in the economic circumstances here,” says Simha. Some commercial owners having trouble filling space were actually tearing down upper stories of their buildings to reduce their value and lower taxes.

This is where MIT’s support could be critical. A special provision of the urban renewal law allowed for much or all of the city’s share to be offset by credits MIT had accumulated. More specifically, the value of MIT land and buildings within one mile of the urban renewal project could be credited to the city to meet its share of the net project costs—as long as the school committed to using that land for education, research, and service purposes. Ultimately, MIT presented detailed campus development plans that fulfilled this requirement, and the school was allowed to transfer roughly $6.5 million in federal tax credits to the city, by most accounts covering Cambridge’s entire $6,416,500 price tag for its share of the project. As Simha related, MIT supported the plan “with the understanding that the proposed activities in Kendall Square would complement the work MIT had already begun in Technology Square to help re-develop and reinvigorate the city’s economy and its residential and community facilities.”


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In 1964, Cambridge initiated the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project under which the effort would proceed. This was a seminal step in the future development of Kendall Square—though once again, things would not play out as envisioned. As an architect of the plan, Rowland was asked to help get it off the ground and in April 1965 took a three-month leave from his Boston job to work for Cambridge. At the end of the first three months, things were on track, so he requested another three months. He never went back to Boston, heading the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from 1965 until 1983.

Rowland’s team finalized the loan and grant application for the feds and had approvals by the end of 1965. In all, twenty-nine acres in the heart of Kendall Square were earmarked for NASA. The area in question was a large tract bordered by Third Street on the east, Binney Street on the north, Broadway on the south, and the railroad right-of-way on the west. The Broad Canal ran through the parcel, and much of its length would have to be filled in. The land was occupied by a fairly large number of mostly small and aging commercial businesses, though very few residents.

A key part of the plan involved the commercial development of an adjacent parcel of land—thirteen acres in the triangle between Broadway and Main Street, with Galileo Galilei Way as its base. This lay between the NASA-designated land and MIT, where the Marriott Hotel and various office buildings stand today, and also the Broad and Whitehead research institutes. At the time, like the NASA parcel, it contained older businesses, but also included a number of working-class homes. This land would stay on the tax rolls and, the hope was, more than make up for what was lost to the federal government as revitalization took place. The vision was to offer a blend of commercial, retail, and residential space that would create a dynamic, almost 24–7 urban neighborhood right next to MIT.

That more than fifty years later planners, university officials, city officials, and residents would still be fighting to fulfill that dream for Kendall Square is a testament to how far off the mark things ultimately went. 

*** 

It was all systems go at first. NASA opened the Electronics Research Center on September 1, 1964, moving into temporary quarters in Tech Square while its permanent site could be readied. The following August, the city formally approved a plan that designated the twenty-nine-acre site for the space agency and also allowed for commercial development of the thirteen-acre triangle next to it.

Over the next three years, half the allocated property — 14.5 acres — was conveyed to NASA as it became ready. “In this period, approximately 110 businesses were relocated, the existing buildings were razed, and the Broad Canal partially filled,” writes historian Susan Maycock. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority reported that the companies displaced employed more than 2,750 workers. That was significantly more than the 2,100 jobs to be directly created over time by the NASA center, but presumably most of the old jobs were preserved elsewhere and the NASA-created positions would be more modern, longer-lasting, and higher-paying—and that did not count additional jobs created by the expected boon to the neighborhood the ERC would provide.

Early Edward Durrell Stone proposal for Volpe Center.

The space agency’s initial design, by noted architect Edward Durell Stone, who had designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art, featured three twenty-four-story towers as the core of the complex. These urban behemoths were to be surrounded by courtyards and lower-rise perimeter buildings. A large courtyard, with a circular fountain at its center, served as the main entranceway. “It looked like a Kremlin undertaking,” is how Rowland summed it up. A review committee raised objections that resulted in significant modifications that included reducing the height of the proposed towers. But part of the design remained intact, and the first construction work started on the smaller buildings in 1965. NASA seems to have begun transferring operations from Tech Square later that year.

With the project’s liftoff going more or less as anticipated, Congress appropriated funding for the Electronics Research Center for the fiscal years 1965, 1966, and 1967. For the next three fiscal years, however, with NASA facing mounting pressure over its skyrocketing budget, no additional funds were approved for construction, although the center continued to add personnel even as other NASA operations were forced to contract. Then, on December 29, 1969, the abort signal came. President Richard Nixon, who had taken office the previous January, issued an executive order without warning to close the center by June 30, 1970.

When the order came through, only one twelve-story tower and five low-rise, concrete perimeter structures had been completed. For the most part, they sat in an urban flatland amid sprawling parking lots. The center itself employed just 850 workers—one hundred of whom held doctorates. They were working on a range of projects that spoke directly to the hopes of transforming Kendall Square into a leading-edge, high-tech center. These included an array of satellite programs, as well as research into nuclear propulsion systems, hybrid computers, holographic displays, and automated landing systems for jet aircraft and the space shuttle.

The closure spurred rumors and conjecture about what had happened. In future years, the story somehow became that Lyndon Johnson put the kibosh on the center to move operations to his native Texas. But at the time, many people figured Nixon had ordered it shut down as a political strike against the Kennedys and Massachusetts, the only state that didn’t vote for him in the 1972 general election. “At least that was the general conclusion,” says Rowland.

Whatever the motive, Nixon’s executive order stunned Cambridge officials. “The closing, bitterly protested by Cambridge as a flagrant breach of contractual obligations,  necessitated a replanning and reprogramming of the entire renewal project area,” the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority sums up. The city, presumably joined by MIT and others, put pressure on the Nixon administration not to totally abandon the site. Nixon’s new secretary of transportation was John Volpe, who had just ended his second stint as governor of Massachusetts. Against the advice of some key lieutenants, Rowland says, Volpe paved the way for his department to take over the facility—which was renamed the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. The Department of Transportation (DOT) took possession on July 1, 1970. Leading up to that point, 611 NASA staffers remained. Of those, 425 transferred to work for the DOT.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg for the troubles the NASA closure caused for Kendall Square revitalization dreams. Unlike NASA, the DOT had no plans to expand onto the additional acreage earmarked for the federal government. Of particular concern were eleven vacant acres on the property’s western edge. This is land west of what is now a pedestrian path called Loughrey Walkway that divides the Volpe site from office buildings occupied chiefly by Biogen and Akamai. With NASA’s plans curtailed, Cambridge wanted to develop the parcel commercially. But the city couldn’t do anything until the federal government released its rights to the acreage.

It took until November of 1971 — almost two years after the executive order to close the NASA site — for Uncle Sam to agree to declare the eleven acres “surplus” and relinquish its rights. Even then, things did not proceed simply. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s revised Kendall Square development plan faced strong local objections and was rejected by the city council. That led to the creation of a task force— and a long period of meetings, study, and debate.One big step forward came in 1975, when Cambridge won a $15 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for completion of the urban renewal project. In 1977, the city at last agreed on a mixed-use development plan for the area and approved the necessary zoning. The next year, Boston Properties was selected as the main developer of the thirteen-acre triangle (parcels 3 and 4 on the map shown in figure 14). And finally, in 1982—more than twelve years after the NASA closure decision—an agreement was made for the “surplus” federal land (parcel 2). Boston Properties was also selected as developer of that property.

What had seemed like a clear and even inspired path to Kendall Square’s revitalization had taken a huge detour. While the NASA center would be described decades later as “the catalyst for the complete redevelopment of Kendall Square,” the short-term effect was that revitalization became stalled for more than a decade in the mess the ERC’s closure left behind. The urban marshland would persist for the better part of another generation.

***

Very little other significant new construction happened in Kendall Square throughout the 1970s as the urban renewal plans were being straightened out. One exception loomed forebodingly across from the Volpe Center toward the river and Boston—on 84 Chapter 10 the corner of Third and Broadway. This was an office complex known as Cambridge Gateway. It was developed on land owned by the Badger Corporation, an engineering and development firm that itself had been displaced by NASA after being in Kendall Square since 1936. The capstone of the project: a huge tower of reinforced concrete that was completed in 1970. It loomed as ugly and soulless as the NASA-cum-Volpe tower. Adjoining it was a low-rise curved garage. A twin tower planned for the other side of the garage was never built.  Despite its long-standing status as a local eyesore, Cambridge Gateway would at the end of the century become home to the pathbreaking Cambridge Innovation Center that offered affordable, ready-made space for startups, giving it a long and storied role in the Kendall Square story.

It would take more than a decade after Cambridge Gateway’s completion before the first commercial buildings constructed under the urban renewal project finally debuted. Comprising both the triangle (parcels 3 and 4) and the NASA surplus parcel (parcel 2), the master plan called for 2.5 million square feet of new construction, spread across nineteen buildings collectively known as Cambridge Center. All the buildings, not counting the garages, were required to use red brick, to reinforce design cohesion. The center as a whole accommodated a range of uses—laboratory, office, retail, and residential. Parcel 3, at the triangle’s widest end, would be dominated in future years by the Whitehead and Broad Institutes. Down at the narrow end in parcel 4 would be a hotel, with another office building at the very tip of the triangle. Parcel 2, the NASA surplus site, was to get low-rise buildings of two to five stories mostly for research and development and light manufacturing.

At first, Boston Properties selected New York–based Davis & Brody as architects. But they were soon replaced by up-and-coming Moshe Safdie & Associates. Safdie had won international fame for designing Habitat 67 for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. Habitat was an adaptation of his master thesis at McGill University. In Montreal, he had known Boston Properties cofounder Mort Zuckerman: both men had grown up in that city. When Safdie moved to the Boston area in 1978 to head the urban design program at Harvard’s School of Design, Zuckerman had asked for his help on the Cambridge Center project.

The first building completed was Five Cambridge Center in 1981. A thirteen-story office block at the corner of Main and Ames Streets in parcel 4, it offered ground-floor retail—and soon welcomed a Legal Sea Foods restaurant. It was the only building designed by Davis & Brody—the rest were by Safdie. Next online, in 1983, came another office building: the twelve-story Four Cambridge Center, just down Ames at the corner of Broadway. For many years, its ground floor was home to Quantum Books, a technical book store (that space is currently a bar and restaurant called Mead Hall). Between the two buildings sat a parking garage.

The remaining buildings would mostly come online later in the decade. In 1986, the twenty-five-story Marriott Hotel opened near the narrow end of the triangle—the city’s largest hotel. The following year, the Kendall Square T station was enlarged and modernized, and the year after that the plaza between the station and the Marriott opened to the public.

A 1987 map showing completed and proposed Cambridge Center buildings. Unmarked in the upper right is the Volpe Center. Parcel 2 is the eleven “surplus” acres reclaimed by the city. Parcels 3 and 4 account for the thirteen additional acres always slated for commercial development. The first buildings were in parcel 4 in 1981 and 1983. The Marriott Hotel, completed in 1986, is near the narrow end of parcel 4. Amid this parcel is the rooftop garden conceived by Safdie and designed by landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners.

Safdie describes seeing Kendall Square soon after he moved to Boston. “It was somewhat like a bombed-out area. I mean it was desolate. There was not a single soul on the streets,” he recalls. At the time Zuckerman reached out to him, the real estate mogul was having trouble getting the master plan approved. “He said, ‘I’m stuck,'” Safdie remembers.

One of first things Safdie did was to rethink how it all flowed together. “The original plan had a parking garage along Broadway,” he says. “So as you came down Broadway, you saw a big goddamn garage. It was very street unfriendly. So I understood that the key to this was to do two things—create an effective piazza that really could become a hub of life and feed into MIT, and secondly, to internalize the garage so its presence from the street would be minimal.”

Those insights became core to his plan. He proposed a large piazza facing MIT that “would be the arrival point for the subway.” German artist Karl Schlamminger, a friend of Safdie’s, came up with the concept of the Persian carpet pattern of paving that characterizes the plaza. To crown it all, and to meet the open space requirements, Safdie moved the parking garage more into the belly of the complex and conceived of a public park atop the structure amid the parcel’s cluster of buildings. “A public park on the fourth floor was without precedent,” he states. Peter Walker and Partners was the landscape architect. The firm, now known as PWP Landscape Architecture, would codesign the National September 11 Memorial. The Kendall Square rooftop park, which was being expanded and reimagined in 2020, won lots of awards at the time, says Safdie. “But the key thing was it was a precedent, a public park on the fourth floor. I went on in many other places to do it later.”

More than two decades after Tech Square, the revitalization effort it had hoped to spark for Kendall Square at last found traction. The effort fell short of its ambitions in some key ways: not only did NASA plans fail to come to fruition, not a single unit of housing was created inside the urban renewal district until 2018. Still, thanks largely to concerted action by a unique collaboration between city, university, and industry officials, the grim conditions of the square were slowly turned around. In the words of Simha, “The important thing is it certainly accomplished one objective, which was to give the city an economic base which now makes it one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, in the Commonwealth.”

Even as Kendall Square got its long-awaited facelift, though, other questions remained largely unanswered. The most basic was, what kinds of companies would go in the new buildings? If NASA wasn’t going to lead the way to the future, then what was? As the urban renewal drama played out, two major advances were steaming forward in science and technology, with MIT playing a big role in both. One centered on artificial intelligence and new frontiers in software and computing. The other centered on the emerging world of gene manipulation—and a field called biotechnology. The first big bets—the bulk of the hype at least—were on software and AI.

Excerpted from “Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub” by Robert Buderi. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Copyright 2022.

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