Kendall Square’s New Rules

4/23/13Follow @rowe

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small (avg. 200 sq. ft.) spaces that are rented on a month-to-month basis, with half of the space serving as shared-space (kitchens, co-working areas). In short, it defines what CIC, Dogpatch Labs, TechStars, Intrepid Labs, Redstar, and Lab Central (amongst others) are doing, and says, “you have got to maintain a fair amount of this kind of use.” The zoning law goes on to establish floor-area-ratio incentives that encourage developers to take this 5 percent up to 20 percent (one-fifth of all the new space). With a credible user of such space in hand, it is likely that developers would use these incentives, bringing the potential amount of innovation space created in Kendall Square over the next decade up as high as one million square feet. This is huge.

This is unbelievably good news for startups. This provision was born of the concern that with the success of Kendall Square, global corporations might otherwise squeeze the startups out, given their ability both to pay more, and landlords’ understandable preference for deep-credit tenants over non-credit tenants. The end result of that path could be a kind of “hollowing out” of this important innovation engine in Massachusetts, with startups pushed to the periphery, losing the advantages of the links they have to the universities and the power of a dense cluster in itself.

This new zoning sets Kendall Square on a path the end of which is hard to see, but which is very bright, very innovative, and very startupy. If you believe these are tools for change in a society that needs that badly, then you should rejoice with me. It is hard to overstate the importance of this change to the future of Kendall.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is what made it possible. Around the world, cities like Cambridge have historically had a strong anti-development bias. Why should townfolk want big, new buildings creating traffic, noise, construction hassles, and the like? Most don’t. And many Cantabrigians did turn out to public meetings to say those things. Yet many other speakers at the City Council’s meetings turned out to talk about the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. They spoke about how these endeavors are critical to our prosperity in these days of intense competition with other regions, how they bring jobs to residents all across the state, and how the fruits of the labors of our innovators and entrepreneurs are solutions to important problems facing the planet. What is super-exciting to me is that our political leaders, with their historic vote, accepted these arguments. This is a major win for innovation, and represents a kind of sea change in how the community sees the role of innovation in society.

A second and important insight here is more tactical, but one that other communities wanting to do this should heed: one reason the surrounding community supported an expansion of Kendall is that Kendall has become a good neighbor. How so? One big example: over the past decade, despite millions of new square feet of new buildings being built here, traffic to and from Kendall Square through the surrounding neighborhoods actually dropped. As a Boston Globe article reporting on this said, that statistic is so startling that you’d think it was a mistake. In fact, we are walking more, biking more, and taking the T more. Today over half of those at the facility I run, Cambridge Innovation Center, take public transit to get to work, and only about a quarter drive.

In another example, we are transforming street life here. Everyone who visits talks about how dramatically Kendall has changed in the past few years from a drab, dusty, empty, corporate wasteland to a place people go out at night; a place you take your kids to go ice skating and paddle boarding; a place where you now see families walking down the street with strollers.

We should not underestimate the degree to which our becoming a better neighbor influenced the greater Cambridge community’s willingness to step up for more of what we do here. This was a great pat on the back for Kendall, and points the way for other communities.

My only significant concern going forward is that with all of this growth, Kendall is outgrowing the public transportation infrastructure that runs through it. We are at or near capacity already at peak hours. This could be a boon for Cambridge, as it pushes more Kendall Square workers to live also in Cambridge, but it also threatens to put more cars on the road. The insufficiency of Massachusetts public transit is a well-recognized issue, and hopefully our legislature will see the wisdom of investing in better connecting its job-creating core with the rest of the state.

Kudos for getting this done go to too many people to mention in a business publication, but in sum I will say that this was a great case where strong partnerships of local interests—neighborhood leaders, city staff, city political leaders, and our university—are together producing a terrific outcome.

Xconomist Tim Rowe is Founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. Follow @rowe

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  • @energycleantech Sahir Surmeli

    Thanks for the summary, Tim. Great to see innovation recognized as an important part of our culture that enriches the local comunity. Also – hats off for the requriements for local retail.

  • MITDGreenb

    Well done… and well-written… Tim!

  • reality check

    I think is sucks. The politicians get money behind closed doors while we get more traffic, pollution, flooding, loss of wildlife habitat, noise, headaches, and a bunch of potential terrorists. Great work building without the proper infrastructure.

  • reality check

    Tim, in 10 years time I went from living on a quiet peaceful street to living in a traffic congested, noise and pollution infested hell hole. Can you tell me what is being done to offset the complete destruction of my quality of life? Very little is the correct answer. I am not able to be outside my home on Third Street for three hours each day due to the traffic backups and pollution. Kendall Square looks pretty but creates something that smells like shit. Excuse my vulgarity, but this is what Kendall Square means to me.

  • Common Sense

    Put your start up elsewhere and you will be able to attract employees for less money and if you have a good product, you will succeed just as well as you can in Cambridge. For those who have commuted into that mess, a chance to work elsewhere is quite welcome. The idea of spending and hour an a half to drive 20 miles is nauseating. Well written, but you really didn’t provide anything to say why a cash strapped startup should spend the money to be in Cambridge.