The town of Weston is poised to become the latest suburb to join the region’s growing number of life sciences clusters.
The new owners of the former Liberty Mutual campus at the Mass. Pike and Route 128 interchange are seeking a zone change to allow labs at their 16-acre property. They also would expand the existing two buildings by about 25 percent, to 300,000 square feet.
If approved by Weston Town Meeting voters in May, the Greatland Realty Partners project could help cement a new life sciences cluster on the Newton-Weston border. This cluster could eventually include more than 1 million square feet of biotech space, factoring in ambitious plans by life sciences developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities for two properties on either side of the Riverside MBTA terminal in Newton.
Alexandria’s arrival at Riverside, just across the Charles River, is one big reason for Greatland’s interest in labs in Weston. Alexandria acquired a roughly 500,000-square-foot office complex on Grove Street early last year; on March 1, the firm received City Council approval to convert a portion for labs, with more conversion work expected at a later date. Alexandria has also teamed up with developer Robert Korff, who last year won a special permit from the council to build a sprawling multiuse project at the T station parking lot next door. Korff is now seeking to change the approved plan to include two lab buildings that would be backed financially by Alexandria.
All the activity and investment within a half-mile radius underscores how life sciences clusters are proliferating in Greater Boston’s suburbs. Cambridge was the unofficial founder of this once-exclusive club. Other members include the likes of Waltham, Lexington, and Woburn. Lately, Arsenal Street in Watertown and sections of Boston have become hot, most notably the Seaport. Clusters are emerging in other places, too: Somerville, Framingham, Burlington.
Aaron Jodka, research director at brokerage Colliers International, said he expects that life sciences space in Greater Boston could double over the next decade, to 60 million square feet from 30 million square feet today, if most projects under consideration come to fruition.
“We’re only in the second inning of where this industry is going,” said Bob Coughlin, an executive with real estate brokerage JLL who used to lead the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “Biotech is about convening. They love clusters. They love to be close to each other.”
Coughlin was speaking at a virtual event held last week by the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber to discuss life sciences growth in the suburbs. The chamber backs Korff’s efforts at Riverside, and is trying to build support ahead of an April 13 City Council hearing on the proposed change.
In Weston, Greatland partners Phil Dorman and Kevin Sheehan said they were initially interested in their property as an office site, but realized there would probably be more demand for lab space. Liberty Mutual employed 360 people there, but moved them out in late 2019, with most going to either the insurer’s Boston or Westborough offices before the pandemic hit.
“With the realization that a lot of the growth in our market here in Boston is being driven by these life sciences companies, we think it’s beneficial for the town as well,” Sheehan said. “It brings economic development, more taxes, and less traffic than a typical office building.”
Greatland would offer tenants a shuttle bus to the Riverside T station, as well as amenities such as a cafeteria, fitness center, and outdoor areas. Sheehan remains hopeful Greatland could begin construction by the end of 2021, and start welcoming tenants a year later.
Greatland, which acquired the site in December, faces some complications with permitting. The project has become intertwined with a town-sponsored effort to rezone the old Liberty Mutual property and an adjacent two acres owned by the town for multifamily housing. The town’s proposal would allow up to 50 housing units per acre by special permit, or a likely max of 100. But the plan also is raising concerns among neighbors who might otherwise be inclined to support Greatland.
Likewise, the switch in the Riverside plans by Korff’s company, Mark Development, is by no means a slam dunk. Many neighbors were not keen on the size of the last proposal: The council already approved roughly 1 million square feet of construction, with offices, apartments, shops, and a hotel. Korff doesn’t want to change the overall size. But he does want to raise the height of one of the proposed buildings, in approximate numbers, from 70 feet to 125 feet. He’s willing to knock back the tallest building to about 145 feet, from 170 feet. And he plans to drop the hotel completely and pare back the number of apartments from 582 to 550.
Financing for hotel construction all but dried up in the COVID-19 pandemic, Korff said, and borrowing money for major new office structures became tougher with office demand waning as more people work from home.
“Alexandria showed up out of the blue,” Korff said. “It seemed like a lucky break.”
The new investor offers a viable solution to keep the Riverside project alive, Korff said, one that dovetails with Alexandria’s long-term vision for its Grove Street complex next door. Korff said the switch offers the city a big bump in taxes, roughly another $800,000 a year, from the old plan because of the added value of lab equipment. Korff’s new proposal calls for 362,000 square feet of life sciences space among the two buildings.
Liz Berthelette, research director at brokerage Newmark Group, said as office demand recedes in Greater Boston, life sciences is picking up much of the slack. It’s not all just research: She pointed to a former Cisco building in Boxborough that is being converted for biomanufacturing.
“This is an industry that is really a beneficial driver for Boston, and a differential driver,” said Jodka, the Colliers researcher. “We have this growth happening in our market today. When you look across other markets in the country, they don’t have that.”