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Boston’s latest mega-project aims to immerse businesses in a lifestyle of innovation

Innovation District on the South Boston waterfront

Innovation District on the South Boston waterfront

A ‘hood for Innovation

By Jason Hagerman

Article Courtesy of:  Bio Business Canada

At a breakfast meeting in May 2010, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced to his audience the city was developing a 1,000-acre Innovation District on the South Boston waterfront. The city already boasts four life science clusters with varying degrees of success, and competitive biotech bastion Cambridge is ever-present across the Charles River. But, Menino said, the Innovation District would be something different. Built from the ground up to promote innovation, Menino says it would not only support the business of innovation, but the lifestyle too.

Building from the ground up

For years, the patch of waterfront land spanning from Boston’s Marine Industrial Park, across Seaport Square to Fan Pier, sat somewhere between crumbling and derelict, a mix of industrial brownfields and commercial carcass, all of it empty and aging. Uneven asphalt cracked and receded as weeds stretched for the sun. Dandelions and crabgrass sprouted from the base of rusting chain link fences capped with barbed wire.

“The land was vacant,” says Menino, speaking at Bio International conference in Washington. “I could have had it developed with office towers and residential and retail years ago, but that would have been anywhere in America. We wanted to be a special place and we needed to be ready to do that.”

Boston, Menino says, is primarily interested in retaining Massachusetts’ innovators from Cambridge, Harvard, MIT and a handful of other universities and life science companies. When the population dynamic reached a critical mass, rife with young professionals and scientists on the search for something new, Menino thought the city was ready.

“We have a very young population in Boston,” says Peter Meade, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “The largest percentage of our population is people in their 20s to 30s. We have this young, well-educated cohort of people who are educated in the sciences and healthcare.”

At the Globe 100 breakfast at the New England XPO for Business, Menino announced a startup competition funded by the venture capital firm Spencer Trask & Co. The winner, My Life List, a social network describing itself as a network for goal achievers, received $50,000 in equity investment and space in the Innovation District.

The award was fitting because of the role social interaction, collaboration, proximity and lifestyle plays in the district.

“It’s so different from what I’ve seen in the past,” says Menino. “These companies and people want to work together, share ideas and space.”

Young innovators don’t want an industrial park with labs and warehouses and fast food restaurants, Menino believes. They want green space, places to shop and a variety of food options. They want to live in more affordable but centrally located housing. They want to walk to work early and stay late.

Central to the innovation lifestyle is the development of unique housing options for life science employees.

Young innovators want […] centrally located housing. They want to walk to work early and stay late.

Home is where the bed is

In June 2010, Menino hosted a symposium on housing models suitable for the Innovation District. Representatives from six architectural firms presented housing developments from around the world as well as new concepts in live/work design.

Cheryl Tougias of Spalding Tougias Architects outlined a high-ceiling, small-footprint unit—a meager 360 sq. ft of living space for a kitchen, dining area, sitting area and clothing storage. A 120 sq. ft sleeping deck, elevated above the kitchen, accommodates a king sized bed.

To build a sense of community and collaboration, Brian Healy of Brian Healy Architects proposed an in-facing housing design in which units in a circular or two semi-circular buildings face each other and wrap around a public green space.

David Hasin from Hasin and Associates questioned the separation of retail, residential and office space with a plan to layer the three components.

“By layering space,” says Hasin, “a neighbourhood can become more vibrant throughout a 24-hour period but still serve as independent feeling communities.”

Breaking ground

In April 2011, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the district’s second rental apartment building. The $11 million structure includes 27 “innovation-units,” for workers in income limbo, earning too much to qualify for formally restricted affordable housing units but too little to reasonably afford centrally located housing. The units are a smaller than typical apartments but come with a flexible layout and access to a shared common area. The building also includes 38 market-rate units and nine affordable units.

“These researchers aren’t looking for something luxurious, they want something functional where they can take a shower, eat and sleep,” says Menino.

The first residential project, approved in December 2010 with a price tag of $150 million, includes 184 rental apartments. The demolition of a five-story warehouse riddled with broken glass and graffiti made way for the building, which contains a mix of innovation units, affordable units and market-rate units.

Archon group, the building developer, agreed to pay $2 million to build public parks in the surrounding area.

“We have two major developments in which we specify that certain parts must be affordable housing for researchers so people can live there, work there and afford to do so without worry,” says Menino.

One development, Seaport Square, will contain 19 buildings separated into 1.25 million sq. ft of retail; 1.4 million sq. ft of office and research; 1.1 million sq. ft of hotel, educational, civic and cultural space; and 2.75 million sq. ft of residential. When complete, Seaport Square will count among the largest sustainable neighbourhoods in the U.S.

The other development, Fan Pier, includes 2 million sq. ft of LEED-Certified office space mixed with several city blocks of variable-income housing.

A do over

The Longwood Medical Area already thrives in Boston. Its medical institutions receive more National Institutes of Health funding than any city in the U.S. But it’s running out of space for new companies. Critics say the Crosstown Cluster, another established innovation cluster, never quite delivered on its promise of creating a critical mass. What makes the Innovation District any different?

Meade believes building the district from infrastructure up creates deliberateness in the design of the entire community, leading to an environment that is more suitable than any other for life sciences companies to grow.

Since the district was announced, Vertex Pharmaceuticals announced it is consolidating its Cambridge operation, a 10-building, 1,800-employee campus, into one Innovation District building. Menino says it’s the largest private sector construction project underway in the country.

Pfizer announced a $100 million foray into the Boston area, with plans to scan the region, including the Innovation District, for better ways to develop drugs.

 

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