CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Alexandria Real Estate Equities told city officials here last week that it will submit within weeks a revised zoning plan that would allow it to build a 1.5 million-square-foot life-sciences campus in this city’s East Cambridge section.
A lawyer and an executive for the publicly traded real estate investment trust told a City Council committee that the revised project will incorporate many of the comments that Cambridge officials and residents are expected to make in weeks of upcoming meetings.
The REIT said it hopes the changes will win over the civic groups and residents that have opposed the bioproject.
Those meetings will include dialogue between Alexandria representatives and many of the project’s vocal critics, who say their concerns about worsening traffic and the threat of a toxin being released from the campus outweigh its potential benefits, such as generating new jobs and expanding the top-tier regional biocluster the city anchors.
Following the meetings, Alexandria will submit to city officials a new application to rezone the 15.7-acre project site. The request will replace the current application for a six-building, 1.5 million-square-foot campus, called the Binney Street Proposal.
“The timeline ultimately will be determined by the appropriate public process, but we hope to incorporate our proposed changes within the coming weeks,” Alexandria spokeswoman Tina Cassidy told BioRegion News after last week’s meeting.
“Alexandria expects to build this project over time, so it is difficult to say with certainty what the total project cost will be,” Cassidy said. Local news reports in recent weeks have pegged that expense at $1 billion. She did not comment on that figure.
Last week, committee members agreed to let Alexandria re-file its original application, and gave Cambridge officials another 90 days to discuss it, rather than let it lapse on Sept. 24 as planned without action from the city. Alexandria said its new zoning proposals and project plans will incorporate changes sought by the city without the delay and expense of filing a new application from scratch.
Before that happens, however, Alexandria representatives will meet with a neighborhood association, the East Cambridge Planning Team; as well as community members, city planning representatives, and every council member individually.
In addition, Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons said she will hold a televised public meeting focused on the issue of laboratory safety and the potential risk to nearby residents of a release of toxins from the labs.
It has not been decided whether the revised zoning proposals will be submitted by Alexandria or the City Council’s Ordinance Committee. The panel will offer a recommendation to the full nine-member council, as will the city’s seven-member Planning Board.
“This just keeps the whole discussion alive. This allows the dialogue to continue and the work to continue, and it shouldn’t be construed as a bad or a good thing,” Cambridge City Council member David Maher, chairman of the ordinance committee, told BioRegion News.
Maher echoed comments he made to the roughly 25 people, mostly city residents, who attended a Sept. 17 public meeting of his committee at City Hall. “We hope in the long run you’ll be pleased to know that we’re taking the necessary time to really look at this in a thoughtful and thorough way.
“This is a working discussion, and we’re continuing that discussion,” Maher added. “This proposal is not going to be rushed.”
Alexandria has sought to add 600,000 new square feet of lab space to the 900,000 square feet it is entitled to build on its project site. The site is covered by “industry” districts that include among permitted uses “offices and laboratories.” Part of the site is additionally covered by a “planned unit development” zone whose uses include “office with supporting commercial activities.”
City zoning rules follow the Eastern Cambridge Planning Study, or “ECaPS.” Completed in 2001, ECaPS recommends a series of zoning changes intended to revitalize industrial sections by adding housing as a permitted use and to encourage adaptive reuse of existing buildings.
At last week’s public meeting, the two Alexandria representatives said the developer had begun revising its proposed zoning for project to reflect changes being made to the campus plan. Among those changes:
- Shorter building: The height of one of the lab campus buildings slated for renovation, 241 Binney St., will be shrunk from 95 feet to 75 feet, similar to the height of surrounding buildings, “in response to a request from the community,” said Joseph McGuire, a vice president with Alexandria. “We heard you about height.” Alexandria acquired the now 130,000-square-foot building from Biogen Idec last year.
- Building setbacks: Two Binney Street buildings across from a park on Rogers Street will be set back at least 25 feet from the park between Second and Third streets.
- Street life: McGuire said Alexandria will change the wording of its zoning proposal to stipulate that ground-floor commercial space be used for stores, restaurants, and educational and cultural uses.
- More open space: Alexandria will expand its undeveloped “open” space within the campus to more than two acres consisting of land on the north side of Rogers Street between Second and Third streets, after acquiring a parcel adjacent to the project site from Archstone, an apartment builder co-owned by TishmanSpeyer and the bankrupt Lehman Brothers that had been converted from an old factory building into the 186-unit Archstone Kendall Square apartment complex. Alexandria will also set aside as open space an undeveloped half-acre triangle bordered by Land Boulevard, First, and Binney streets.
- Noise Management and environmental sustainability: McGuire said the campus buildings will meet the requirements of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, silver standard, a designation the developer will pursue, McGuire said.
“We believe that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for this type of parkland and for this type of development that we’re proposing,” McGuire said in a presentation to the ordinance committee.
Headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., Alexandria is already a major presence in Cambridge, where it owns and manages some 2 million square feet of space, including the Technology Square complex, which it bought from MIT in 2005 for $600 million.
Cambridge accounts for half of Alexandria’s 4 million square feet of holdings in Massachusetts, and 15 percent of its total portfolio of 13.3 million square feet — a figure that includes 11.7 million rentable square feet plus 1.6 million square feet of space now under development. Alexandria is capable of growing its portfolio to 22.4 million square feet through future development of some 9.1 million square feet of lab and office space.
“This just keeps the whole discussion alive. This allows the dialogue to continue and the work to continue, and it shouldn’t be construed as a bad or a good thing.”
During the first half of this year, according to a Cushman & Wakefield report, Cambridge saw more than 202,000 square feet enter negative absorption, when more tenants move out of space than those moving in. Most of that increase materialized after drug maker Alkermes place 145,000 square feet for sublease and biotech Genzyme vacated 65,000 square feet of space.
C&W said its overall (direct plus sublease) lab and office vacancy rate for the first half of 2008 increased 1.1 percent to 12.6 percent year over year. The Cambridge overall lab vacancy rate was 17.1 percent in the second quarter of 2008. A figure for Q2’07 was unavailable.
Last week at the public meeting, City Council member Sam Seidel said the city will seek to balance Alexandria’s interests with those of residents concerned about their quality of life.
“I think there are things that can happen in East Cambridge that would be net-positives for the city. I do believe that biotech is an area that Cambridge has developed a niche [which] leads to our benefit,” Seidel said. “But I also think, how we go about this, particularly given the size of the project, is so crucial. We need to develop a sense that we feel comfortable with the bricks, mortar, concrete, and steel that’s going to be put in the ground.”
Cambridge’s niche includes 143 life-sciences employers — from startups to research institutes and universities — that are members of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, according to the industry group’s website. Life-sci employers accounted for 10 of the city’s top 25 employers as of October 2007, according to the city Community Development Department.
City Council member Kenneth Reeves argued for supporting Alexandria’s project by citing the possibility that Vertex Pharmaceuticals, one of Cambridge’s largest life-sciences employers, may soon bolt the city for neighboring Boston.
Over the summer, Vertex signaled it was giving serious thought to vacating the roughly 600,000 square feet it leases in four Cambridge buildings when it signed a letter of intent to negotiate a lease for at least 500,000 square feet of build-to-suit space at the Fallon Co.’s Fan Pier mixed-use development, planned to rise on the South Boston waterfront [BRN, Aug. 11; Aug. 4].
Reeves cited a news report in which Vertex founder, president, and CEO Joshua Boger said he would stay in Cambridge if the city had 320,000 contiguous square feet of life-sci space available within its borders.
“Do we want to decide there’s a certain size of company we don’t want to accommodate?” Reeves rhetorically asked during the meeting. “I do want Cambridge to remain competitive as a destination home of companies, of a variety of companies.”
Also supporting the biocampus is Tim Rowe, president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which includes life-sciences companies among its more than 175 tech startups based there.
Rowe said Alexandria’s campus should be linked by walking paths to nearby Kendall Square and nearby biotech buildings owned by BioMed Realty Trust, a San Diego REIT focused on life-sciences properties.
Alexandria’s project continued to be viewed coolly by seven of the 11 speakers at last week’s meeting.
Marie Saccoccio, a fourth-generation East Cambridge resident with a law practice based in the city, urged officials to maintain the current “industry” zone for the project. She said she was so convinced Alexandria’s campus would be too intense a use for the site and would pose a nuisance to the surrounding community that “I’d certainly be willing to litigate the issue.”
Jay Washburn called on officials to think long-term. “Biotech is growing and we want to embrace that in the city. But these industries shrink and grow, as everything does,” he said. “If we design a good environment that biotech fades or it stays, something else will want to be there.”
And in a letter to the ordinance committee distributed at the meeting, resident Barry Zevin expressed doubt that the street retail space proposed by Alexandria would enliven East Cambridge streets during non-business hours.
“The community does not need or expect the intensity of street life one finds in central, Harvard, or Inman Squares,” Zevin wrote. ”Most of us would settle for being able to walk at night from Kendall Station to Lechmere/East Cambridge, or to the One Kendall Square complex [and] Area 3 and 4 neighborhoods without traversing several unpopulated blocks.”
Zevin was among several residents who invoked Kendall Square as a metaphor for short-sighted planning they feared Alexandria will perpetuate.
Resident Frances Antupit said that “what we don’t want Alexandria Real Estate [Equities] to give our neighborhood is an urban canyon that is deserted at night. What we would like to see, and what the neighborhood needs, is more retail, more restaurants, open space, and affordable housing, all of which would enrich our lives.”
While life-sciences companies converted enough industrial sites to bring jobs back to the square, most of those newer buildings there and on surrounding blocks did so without the pedestrian activity characteristic of healthy downtowns. Alexandria has said it is addressing the issue by locating stores and restaurants on the street levels of its lab buildings.
To minimize increases in auto traffic from its project, Alexandria has proposed designing and paying for a transportation center, or “node,” at the corner of Second and Binney streets for buses, cabs, bicycles, ZipCar, and community transportation services.
Resident Steve Kaiser said “we have got to deal with the architectural damage of Kendall Square, and assure [residents] that [Alexandria’s project] does not make the same mistakes.”
That assurance is more possible now than when the project was introduced, Kaiser said, since Alexandria has shown willingness to revise parts of its project in response to officials and residents.
“Alexandria has changed somewhat during this process. In the very beginning, they came in very strong, very heavy, and it looked like they had a steamroller going on,” Kaiser recalled. “As time passed, that image of power decreased, and I think they became more human.”