Somerville: The Next Lab Mecca?

For some time now, Boston-area labs have generally fallen into one of two categories: either you’re located in Kendall Square, or you want to be. Cambridge continues to be a leader in life sciences, buoyed by the large number of talented workers coming out of area universities. Not surprisingly, the demand for lab space in Kendall has resulted in vacancy rates that are close to zero, and what space does open up is often financially out-of-reach for many smaller firms. Traditionally, a firm unable to secure lab space in Kendall may have looked to suburbs like Waltham and Lexington, where space and amenities have been abundant and relatively cost-effective.

The Seaport District, with its buildable space, has in the last several years served as something of a release valve for lab tenants seeking space outside of Kendall Square. Vertex Pharmaceuticals led the charge almost a decade ago, and developers continue to build on the South Boston waterfront: most recently, it’s Innovation Square – a two-phase complex offering 125,000 square feet of lab space currently underway.

But even outside of Kendall and the Seaport – the usual suspects, if you will – life science tenants are increasingly seeking and finding lab space within the urban core. Several “lab microclusters” have emerged in more urban zones of Greater Boston, with communities previously thought to be less amenable to commercial lab tenants – like Somerville – looking to get in on the action.

More on Somerville in a bit, but first a rundown of some of the urban areas where we’re seeing the greatest lab growth:

West Cambridge/Alewife

Just a hop from Kendall Square, West Cambridge was always poised to see growth in commercial real estate. The lab market there is smoldering, with nearly every building currently offering lab space at full capacity. Several new lab developments are in the works — most notably 35 Cambridgepark Drive (Alewife Research Center), a 223,000 square foot building under construction across from the Alewife MBTA Station. Set to open this Spring, Cambridge Discovery Park will offer 250,000 square feet of build-to-suit lab space in West Cambridge. And on a smaller scale, the just-renovated lab/research facility at 75 Moulton Street offers 37,500 square feet of new office and lab space near Cambridge’s Fresh Pond.

Watertown

Watertown, Cambridge’s neighbor to the west, is on the rise both in its lab space offerings and its after-work amenities like housing, entertainment, and dining. The Old Arsenal Mall, which was for years in decline, was leveled last year and will be overhauled into a concept featuring higher-end retail, residential, and restaurants – all part of making Watertown a more attractive town for Cambridge companies. Those companies are already taking notice. Global nonprofit AddGene recently joined C4 Therapeutics and Aileron in committing to relocating from Cambridge to Boylston Properties’ new LINX building – currently more than half occupied.

Brighton

Brighton is another emerging lab submarket in Greater Boston’s urban core. In addition to Roche/Genentech, Cambridge-born Mass Innovation Labs just signed for a new location in Cambridge, as well as a large amount of space in Seaport – and Brighton. Turns out the Cambridge company had a need, Brighton had space, and Mass Innovation Labs chose a new urban location rather than heading to the suburbs.

Somerville

Which brings me to Somerville. Somerville has long had an educated workforce and proximity to Kendall, but it has lagged behind other urban areas in development. The city now features a handful of sites poised for development or redevelopment and may get some attention in the next few years from lab companies.

Shovels could be in the ground as early as this fall in Union Square, which is the site of an ambitious, multisite development with 2.3 million square feet of lab and office space, retail, and 950 residences. The US2 project is largely driven by the extension of the MBTA’s Green Line to Union Square, turning the square into an ideally situated live-work-play market overnight.

And over on 9.4 acres near Assembly Row, a proposal for a large-scale development at 5 Middlesex Avenue is currently under review. The project would incorporate an existing office building into a new, 1.9 million square foot complex with hotel, lab, office, residential, and retail uses.

By necessity or choice, companies are warming up to urban areas outside of Kendall Square – much to the benefit of developers in Brighton, Watertown, and West Cambridge. If Somerville can overcome some of its self-imposed hurdles in permitting new developments, there’s no reason it can’t be another urban frontier for lab research and development in Greater Boston.

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