Sunday, September 09, 2012

Is Cambridge Almost Full?

If you tour around the extended Kendall Square area of Cambridge, you'll find a number of large construction sites.  Various projects for Pfizer, Biogen, Novartis and more speculative projects are consuming most of the large surface parking lots in the area, and many that are yet untouched (such as the one next to Starbase Athenaeum)  are marked out for development.  There are a number of single story buildings, such as the bank by the Kendall T-stop, which seem likely to also become such sites.  However, on the outskirts of Cambridge just such a proposal has kicked up a serious hornet's nest, and one that suggests that the biotech (and tech) real estate boom here may soon hit a serious wall.

If you head up Massachusetts Avenue from MIT and cross the railroad tracks, you soon are upon the truly massive old NECCO factory, which once made numerous candies.  Now, that is the local headquarters of Novartis, and a number of the lower buildings that once sat between the tracks and NECCO have been replaced by further expansion of Novartis.  The next block, the 300 block, had a bunch of bars and restaurants and a Salvation Army thrift store, as well as one residential building that is apparently an MIT dorm.  The next building holds the popular Asgard pub, and then there is a small park and then an iconic old fire station.  The current dust-up specifically focuses on that park and the block between the Asgard and Novartis.

These properties lie in front of the large space which Forest City Properties redeveloped along Sidney and Landsdowne Streets.  When Millennium was booming during the genomics bubble, they had space in many of these buildings, and now retain space in several of them.  Many other companies are in the neighborhood as well, but other properties were developed as either market housing, affordable housing or MIT graduate dormitory space.  A badly needed grocery store sits below the premium hotel.  Given that the area was nearly completely vacant when I first came to the area, it represents a huge hub of productive activity and an attractive neighborhood.

Forest City wants to replace that space between Novartis and the Asgard with another set of buildings, which would feature first floor retail space and labs and offices above, with Millennium as the lead tenant.  However, some activists and councilpersons in Cambridge want only housing here.  Forest Cities made a tactically-dubious proposal to instead put a housing tower on the small park.  Given that the tower would be much taller than anything around it and would obliterate a park, this seemed a proposal doomed to fail.

I believe a number of things are stirring the resistance.  In a number of locations around Cambridge, biotech or tech buildings are being built next to triple decker-rich residential neighborhoods, leading to fears of further encroachment.  In the case of the Forest City/Millennium proposal, this wouldn't seem the case so much as fears that high-density commercial development will encroach on Central Square itself.  Indeed, a zoning petition has apparently been submitted to further downzone Central Square, reducing the permitted density.  Not helping things at all was Google's proposal to expand their space by removing much of an unusual and popular rooftop public garden; this certainly got a lot of hackles up.

One of the Globe articles on this thread made it sound like biotech executives are wondering if they are welcome in Cambridge anymore.  That seems like an over-reaction, but the question really is whether there will be any more acceptable spaces for further development?  The one obvious example is that East Cambridge Railyards area, which is mostly undeveloped and far from existing neighborhoods, and so should encounter minimal opposition.  Minimal is not none; those who wish to see subsidized housing installed will probably push for it anywhere.  But beyond this area, which is huge, there aren't many obvious areas to redevelop that aren't already in play.  The hideous and hulking courthouse tower is on the market and expected to be chopped down to a more appropriate size, but that's one small property.  When a Cambridge counselor says "My personal bias is that we don’t need more lab space", that suggests that any project may get a gimlet eye.  Hearing activists equate their opposition to these proposals to their successful fight to block the notorious Inner Belt highway proposal, which would have sent a multi-lane expressway through the neighborhood, doesn't suggest much room for compromise from that quarter.

What would it really mean for biotech?  I think Cambridge will still remain a hotbed for biotech and tech.  A number of the buildings already extant are far from filled (indeed, a beautiful building near us is completely vacant), and the ebbs and flows of companies will open up space.  But, for a company like Millennium trying to have a large yet compact campus for a showpiece headquarters, it may be an issue.  Vertex will be moving to South Boston soon (which will, of course, open up a bunch of space) and now Mayor Menino is making a pitch for Millennium.  

Another potential result of these events could be to inspire some of the biotech community and those who rely on it to become more active in Cambridge community discussions.  More than a few of those resisting the Forest City proposal seem to have an us-vs-them attitude; big companies are trying to dictate values to Cambridge.  Given that a lot of the local restaurateurs get a lot of business from the biotech crowd, they really need to speak up.  But more importantly, more than a few biotech employees both live and work in Cambridge, and it is important that their voices are heard as well.  

At the other end, it is important to recognize mistakes in development.  As pointed out by one of the activists, one of the recent glitzy developments in Central Square has an awful retail component.  In general, this has been a trend I've noticed over the last twenty years: while Central Square has been cleaned up a lot, the retail mix has definitely suffered.  Some of this is from national trends; there was once a Woolworth's that was enormously useful but is gone like all other Woolworth's.  But, the newer developments have tended to bring in mall stores (like a phone store) in place of locally-run businesses that sold useful things at good prices (there was a menswear shop that was a good source of belts).   It's also important to continue what has been successful: the enormous boom in the Kendall Square area has actually be accompanied by a drop in traffic. Making sure that trend continues, and is well publicized, would remove one argument raised against more development.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is a wonderfully thoughtful post. I hope you'll follow through by engaging with A Better Cambridge, a group that addresses precisely the concerns you raise.