Creating the ‘Harvard Square’ of the suburbs

Originally published July 27, 2014 in Banker & Tradesman

A rendering of the Wells Avenue office park in Newton, where Cabot, Cabot & Forbes has proposed 334 apartment units. Courtesy photo/Banker & Tradesman.

A rendering of the Wells Avenue office park in Newton, where Cabot, Cabot & Forbes has proposed 334 apartment units. Courtesy photo/Banker & Tradesman.

Forget your grandpa’s office park. With office rents continuing to rise in Cambridge and downtown Boston, the demand for urban amenities in the suburbs has grown, and developers are responding.

“People used to move to the suburbs for the convenience, the cheaper rents and the free parking,” said Duncan Gratton, a principal at commercial real estate company Cassidy Turley.

Now suburban landlords are spending millions to reverse the trend of companies fleeing the suburbs in favor of “cool” downtown neighborhoods and innovation districts.

“The suburbs now have to compete from an office population and office ownership perspective with the more fun, more attractive locations of the city,” Gratton said. “For a long time, they competed pretty poorly. The free parking and rents were nice, but there wasn’t a lot to do out there, and there’s still a lot of traffic.”

In Burlington, where office rents have jumped 13 percent in the last year, two developers are trying to reap the rewards of office park makeovers. In Newton, developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes wants to build 334 apartments in its Wells Avenue office park.

Even in what most people would consider an urban environment – the Seaport District of Boston – developer Jamestown LP is discovering that just one mile can make a big difference. With 1.4 million square feet in two buildings that house a mix of commercial, R&D and industrial uses, the company realizes that one Au Bon Pain and a hardware store doesn’t cut it for today’s office users.

Jamestown recently brought in food trucks, but with tech incubator MassChallenge moving to the property in June, company representatives said they’re looking for evening options to cater to the entrepreneurial crowd.

“Our plan would bring additional amenities to the ground floor, such as a coffee shop, newsstand, food purveyors and showrooms, all opening onto a pedestrian promenade,” said Jamestown Chief Operating Officer Michael Phillips. “Our experience in other markets has shown that access to amenities is a key consideration for companies as they make location decisions and seek to recruit top talent and grown their businesses.”

Reconsidering ‘Home’

Just what kind of amenities, and how close they are to housing, is at the center of a debate in what Newton and Needham public officials have branded the “N2 Innovation Corridor.”

The Patrick administration identified the roughly 500-acre commercial strip along Needham and Highland avenues as an alternative to the growing congestion in Cambridge and Boston. City leaders are coordinating their efforts to attract companies there.

TripAdvisor, launched in Needham in 2000, moved back to its hometown last year after the city secured tax incentive funds from the state, said John Bulian, chairman of the Needham Board of Selectmen.

“For many years, Needham had struggled with how to reinvigorate the business center,” Bulian said. “We knew we needed a game-changer, and TripAdvisor is indeed a game-changer. They’re a large, cutting-edge company, and the hope was that they would attract other companies.”

In order to do that, the area needs workforce housing close to where the offices are, said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. Boston-based Cabot, Cabot & Forbes designed a 350-unit apartment complex in Needham in 2007, but a recent proposal by the company to add 334 apartments to the Wells Avenue office park in Newton is meeting resistance from local officials.

John Sullivan, senior project manager for Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, said the project is designed to appeal to “young, technology-oriented professionals and innovation-related workers” with a mix of studio, one-, and two-bedroom units.

“This is an opportunity to create housing close to employment where this type of project is lacking – and in high demand,” Sullivan said in a statement.

The apartment building would replace a gym and reduce traffic, he said, but the company is also committing $750,000 to improve the intersection at Wells Avenue and Nahanton Street.

Newton planning and development director Candice Havens said the city supports mixed-use developments, but questioned whether there were enough public transportation connections to make it successful. Although the development is a Chapter 40B project, Havens said the property’s deed restricts residential uses. The project is under review by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In the meantime, Newton is working on a new master plan, which Havens said would likely include other ways to incentivize businesses to locate there. At the end of it, Havens said the city is looking to bring a little bit of Kendall Square’s success to Newton and Needham’s new innovation district.

“It would be fabulous to have a high-tech, vibrant area that includes all sorts of new and innovative businesses in that area,” Havens said.

Booming In Burlington

In Burlington, the owners of Northwest Park and New England Executive Park have both carved away office space to make room for restaurants, retail and other attractions.

Office rents in Burlington overall have increased 13.4 percent in the past year, according to Cassidy Turley’s second quarter report. Compare that to overall office rents along the Route 128 corridor, up only 3.7 percent in the past 12 months.

At Northwest Park, Nordblom Senior Vice President Todd Fremont-Smith said the company is taking an office park developed in the 1950s back to the building patterns of the 1850s. In addition to restaurants and a Wegmans grocery store, the company plans 300 apartment units, 250 of which will be going up in its first phase of redevelopment this summer.

“Northwest Park was a modern park –  in its day – attempting to bring together a variety of businesses in one massive planned business park. The post-World War II zoning sought to achieve the highest value by a separation of uses,” Fremont-Smith said. “The mixed-use theory of today is a return to the more organic zoning of yesterday.”

Nordblom was ahead of the curve, proposing the zoning changes in 2006 and securing approval in 2007. The company waited out the recession and purchased the former Sun Microsystems property, bringing its total square footage to 285 acres, up from 150. Of that, Fremont-Smith said they are carving out 20 acres in the center to create what he calls “the Harvard Square of Burlington.”

“The most authentic places where people want to linger grew up over time,” Fremont-Smith said. “We’re going building by building, trying to find the most unique users in each category.”

One restaurant, Bancroft, is already operating, with two more scheduled this fall and Wegmans on track for an October opening.

Just down the street, the New England Executive Park is taking a similar approach. National Development acquired the property in June last year, said Andrew Gallinaro, the company’s director of acquisition and asset management. National Development worked with the town to rezone the park, Gallinaro said, and is now adding a 170-key Marriot Residence Inn, broadening the sidewalks, creating new pedestrian paths and open spaces, and adding new restaurants. Although Tavern on the Square has been operating there since 2012, Gallinaro said a second restaurant, Tuscan Kitchen, is slated to open in early September, with at least one other opening in 2016 around the same time as the hotel.

“We’re trying to create an environment and a package that will allow our existing office tenants to attain and attract the types of talent that they’re looking to attract, and also offer a really unique opportunity that is an urban alternative to the next big client,” Gallinaro said. “We’ll be able to say to someone, ‘To the extent that you’re willing to consider an urban environment, you ought to be here, because we have a unique opportunity to offer a mix that’s very close to that.’”

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