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paul mcmorrow

Seaport is rising, but not from tech

Goodwin Procter’s impending move from State Street to the Seaport District is a big win for Boston’s burgeoning waterfront. But the white-shoe law firm’s decision to jump across Fort Point Channel to a custom-built tower at Fan Pier also clarifies an important truth: The innovation economy will not single-handedly transform the Seaport’s acres of parking lots into a sparkling new neighborhood.

After numerous false starts, the Seaport’s promise is starting to be realized. Buildings are rising, enabling the construction of new city blocks that have languished on the drawing boards for years.

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But they aren’t rising on the wings of innovation. Instead, the growth is being driven by old-line corporations that are fleeing nearby business districts with checkbooks in hand. Despite the hopes that technology companies would flock to the Seaport, large-scale innovation-driven development remains the domain of Kendall Square in Cambridge. Given that reality, Boston needs either to take concrete steps to enable the kind of innovation economy it says it wants or to drop the Innovation District charade.

There’s little doubt that Goodwin Procter’s decision to leave its current quarters near Post Office Square for a new office tower along the waterfront will prove an important catalyst for the area. Goodwin is an enormous law firm; its relocation will allow Boston developer Joe Fallon to put another piece of his Fan Pier mega-development in place. Fallon has already completed one office tower at Fan Pier. He is currently building a new laboratory-and-office complex for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and plans to begin work on a 15-story condominium tower next year. Goodwin will be the anchor for a 17-story office-and-hotel tower.

The law firm’s relocation plan adds to a pretty impressive construction boom along the waterfront. Fan Pier had struggled, under multiple developers, to gain traction; now it’s surging, creating a new hub of activity on what was once a rail yard. Just down the street, work is underway on a 21-story apartment complex at Pier 4, a 20-story residential building at Waterside Place, and another 20-story apartment tower off A Street in Fort Point.

But despite that success, the area hasn’t fulfilled the city’s hopes. Boston Mayor Tom Menino has been chasing the redevelopment of the Seaport since he swept into City Hall two decades ago. He rebranded the Seaport and Fort Point as Boston’s Innovation District nearly three years ago. Menino’s Innovation District concept is clearly patterned after the technology cluster in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. But the Innovation District is just as clearly failing to replicate what Kendall is doing. Kendall Square developers currently have millions of square feet in the construction pipeline, earmarked for the likes of Pfizer, Novartis, Biogen Idec, the Broad Institute, and Google. Microsoft recently completed a major expansion. Amazon is opening an engineering center. These heavyweight research and tech companies are all either moving to town or significantly expanding their existing operations. They’re not just moving down the street for a lovely harbor view.

In contrast, as the recent activity shows, Menino’s Innovation District push is really more a marketing strategy aimed at attracting enough business relocations to drive redevelopment of the area.

So why hasn’t tech come to harbor’s edge? Simple: Cost. While the lower-rent former warehouse space in Fort Point is buzzing with tech firms, these are not the types of companies that can afford to occupy, much less commission, the new office buildings needed to fulfill Menino’s Seaport development vision. That heavy, and expensive, development work is being bankrolled by big, established, mature firms. The companies responsible for the new waterfront are law firms like Goodwin Procter, Fish & Richardson, Foley Hoag, and Nutter McClennan & Fish, and financial giants like Wellington Management and State Street. The neighborhood’s booming restaurant scene and a sparklingly clean Boston Harbor are the forces attracting companies. Even Vertex’s move, which was in the works long before the Innovation District got its hopeful moniker, was a lifestyle decision, not an innovation one.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with moving a few blocks for a nice view. Plenty of companies have made that move — enough so that the high-rise area of the Seaport, which is the part that badly needs attention, is beginning to resemble a better-built Financial District. But there’s nothing innovative about it, either. It’s basic city-building, nothing more.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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