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Tech, bio firms meet resistance in Cambridge

The explosive growth that has made Cambridge one of the country’s foremost life sciences and technology hubs is meeting resistance from some residents who complain that commercial development is overwhelming city neighborhoods.

That opposition has already scored one major victory: stalling a proposed 246,000-square-foot office and lab complex near Central Square that would house drug maker Millennium Pharmaceuticals. And now more development could be in question as residents have submitted a petition to City Hall to “downzone” a number of parcels around Central Square, including the planned Millennium site, making them less suitable for large-scale development.

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“There’s a sense that commercial development, particularly related to these hot bio- and information technology industries, is moving from Kendall Square, up Main Street, and right into Central Square,” said resident Nancy Ryan, who cochairs a citizens group called the Cambridge Residents Alliance.

The backlash has caught the notice of biotechnology leaders, who are asking whether the industry is still welcome in Cambridge, with its roster of drug makers that is the envy of business leaders in California and elsewhere. And Cambridge’s competitors are quick to pounce on any vacillation, seeing it as an opportunity to steal a major employer.

“Millennium, we want them,” said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who promised to call executives at the drug company Monday and suggest they consider expanding on the South Boston Waterfront, where another major Cambridge drug firm, Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., is already building a headquarters.

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“We want to work with them and show them how business friendly we are,” Menino added. “Bio is a great industry, and it’s a perfect example of what we’re looking for here in the city of Boston. We have the ability to get it done.”

Even before the Millennium clash, rising neighborhood discontent forced a concession from the builders for another major business in Cambridge: Internet search giant Google Inc. Last winter, Boston Properties agreed to build a park near Google’s Kendall Square offices after an outcry by residents over its proposal to shrink an existing public rooftop garden to accommodate a walkway connecting Google offices.

Cambridge has a number of other major developments underway, including two life sciences projects near the proposed Millennium site on the edge of Central Square: one by Novartis AG, and another joint venture of Pfizer and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The newly stalled development at 300 Massachusetts Ave. would significantly enlarge the local footprint of Millennium, a cancer drug developer owned by Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. that has about 1,200 workers in Massachusetts. Millennium, which occupies space in four other buildings in the adjoining University Park development, has agreed to lease 230,000 square feet in the new building proposed by developer Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland. Other companies in University Park include Novartis, Sanofi SA, and Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Opponents of the project, including some Cambridge city councilors, say they are objecting not to Millennium but to encroachment of development into their neighborhoods. They contend that the proposed Forest City project and others have not been accompanied by enough affordable housing and accommodations for traffic, noise, and public transportation.

“For me, that particular site is more appropriate for housing than commercial development,” said City Councilor Minka vanBeuzekom. “Right now we have quite a bit of commercial development on the books. My personal bias is that we don’t need more lab space. The city should decide what it needs. Just because Forest City wants it, doesn’t mean we have to give it to them.”

Earlier this month, dozens of residents packed a public meeting to protest a zoning change petition from Forest City that would have allowed the six-story project to go forward. The City Council let the petition expire without voting on it, which means Forest City can try again but leaves the proposed development in limbo for now.

Cambridge’s mayor, Henrietta Davis, who chairs the City Council, insisted it was not sending a message to biotechnology companies. Davis said the council was unable to reach a consensus on the Forest City project because it needed more information, and she expects the developer to refile its petition.

“I don’t want the industry to get the sense they’re not welcome here,” Davis said. “But that type of development has to be in its place, and we have to protect the neighborhood, too.”

Millennium spokeswoman Manisha Pai said the company, which currently has more than 50 open positions, needs to move forward on its expansion soon.

“At this time, we are definitely committed to Cambridge and we are very hopeful that we’ll be able to stay in Cambridge,” Pai said. “But we do have to expand our space.”

Peter Calkins, chief operating officer for Forest City’s science and technology group in Boston, said the developer is weighing its next move, but acknowledged the lack of city approval “has thrown a monkey wrench” into Millennium’s plans.

“We’re disappointed in how the process came out,” Calkins said, noting that Forest City had agreed to create more affordable housing and address other concerns expressed by neighbors. “We thought we had put together a proposal that addressed the zoning as well as some of the ancillary issues. Millennium still wants to do this. We still very much want to do this. But we can’t go through this same process for another three or four months with the same results.”

It could have been worse for Forest City: If the council had rejected its petition, Forest City would have been barred from resubmitting it for two years. But because the council let the petition expire, the developer can bring its proposal, or a modified version, back before the council this fall.

But a renewed petition by Forest City could be complicated by two efforts underway in Cambridge: the downzoning petition from neighbors, and a city-led effort to create a comprehensive plan for the future of Central Square, both of which are expected to be debated by the City Council this fall. While the council could approve the 300 Massachusetts Ave. proposal before those processes are complete, the developer could face formidable risks if it went forward before the parcel’s zoning had been resolved.

“Our goal is to preserve the liveability of our neighborhood,” said neighborhood activist Susan Yanow, a leader in the group that submitted the downzoning petition. “Having watched the march of big glass buildings down Main Street, we don’t want to see it turn the corner.”

In the meantime, biotechnology leaders are watching the Millennium situation closely.

“Is there room to accommodate the growing industry in Cambridge? Yes,” said Peter Abair, director of economic development for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Association. “And when there isn’t, when the community draws a line, then there are many other communities, such as Boston and the suburbs, that will be welcoming to the industry.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.
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