The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
For two decades, Kendall Square in Cambridge has boomed on the magic of the “bump.” The chance encounter. The quick coffee. The collision of brilliant minds in confined space sparks ideas that birth companies and has given rise to Kendall’s not-immodest slogan: “The most innovative square mile on the planet.”
Then came COVID-19.
Kendall scientists have played an outsized role in the recovery from the pandemic ― such as by developing vaccines and launching COVID testing operations. But many of the 66,000 people who went to work there every day prepandemic were not lab-based scientists, and many still work mostly from home today. So they’re not meeting for coffee in the lobby of the Marriott or over an after-work drink at Legal Sea Foods. Even Kendall loyalists acknowledge the bump effect is not quite back. Some wonder if it ever will be.
“Kendall has been resilient, but that doesn’t mean people are networking,” said Lee McGuire, chief communications officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and chair of the Kendall Square Association, a group of large Kendall employers. “You’re on Zoom calls with other people who have desk assignments in Kendall Square, but it doesn’t mean you’re interacting with others beyond that small network you established two years ago.”
Now those same great minds of Kendall are working to reimagine the place, just as several long-planned developments open their doors.
The combination may surprise people who haven’t stepped out of the Red Line station on Main Street in a while. There’s a canyon of new office towers, a new museum, bookstore, and welcome center for MIT, along with lively restaurants in the works. And yes, even a humble CVS soon to open ― the neighborhood’s first drugstore in years. More housing is coming. So is more community space, including parks and plazas. An old factory off Third Street will reopen this fall as an arts and science center, designed to better knit the booming business district into the diverse neighborhoods next door.
All of it aims to answer the question of how Kendall ― in a work-from-anywhere world ― can continue to draw people and companies despite transportation challenges, exorbitant rents, and the proliferation of more affordable lab space beyond Cambridge.
“Kendall is crazy expensive. So why would you come to Kendall? Because of who else is in Kendall,” said Tim Rowe, who cofounded the Cambridge Innovation Center — now CIC — two decades ago. “The things that brought people to Kendall in the past are alive and well.”
As with so much about Kendall Square, this latest chapter starts with MIT.
Steve Marsh, senior vice president at the university’s real estate arm, MITIMCO, used to look out his Main Street window at a sea of parking lots and fencing.
“For 18 years, I’d walk out here and people would ask me where MIT is,” he recalled. “It’s right here.”
More than a decade ago, the school set out to change that, planning a series of tall office and residential buildings along Main Street, roughly 1.8 million square feet in all. At street level, behind an improved Red Line station, sits a large plaza, a university welcome center and admissions office, and a much-expanded MIT Museum: a “new front door” for MIT. The plaza is already hosting movie nights and concerts, and the rest of the facilities will come online this summer and fall.
“It goes from feeling like an ivory tower with a dome and the columns on Mass. Ave. to feeling like it’s part of the community,” said Krystyn Van Vliet, MIT’s associate provost and associate vice president for research.
MIT has made some subtler changes to the landscape as well, such as redesigning the bland lobby of its office tower at One Broadway to make room for a restaurant.
That restaurant, Shy Bird, opened in August 2019. Brutal timing, unless you’re on a busy corner with a big patio, garage doors, and a menu that goes well in a takeout bag. Shy Bird rode out the darker periods of the pandemic and now, as its third birthday approaches, the welcoming hangout that owner Andrew Holden envisioned has become a reality.
Lately, Shy Bird has emerged as a hub of the neighborhood, open 16 hours a day, from morning coffee to after-dinner drinks and beyond. Among his regulars, Holden counts a biotech entrepreneur who camps out at a table, ordering overnight oats for breakfast and staying on through to his after-hours beer. The clientele on one recent afternoon ranged from tech workers to grad students to construction workers sharing a bucket of Pacificos.
“The whole idea was to do something that’s affordable, accessible, and approachable,” said Holden, who used to live just up the street in East Cambridge. “It’s the neighborhood restaurant I always wanted in this neighborhood.”
Of course, even the notion of Kendall Square as a “neighborhood” is a relatively new phenomenon. People have long lived there ― thanks to MIT dorms ― but their numbers have swelled with a wave of new housing. Just last month, a 300-unit apartment building developed by MIT opened at 165 Main St.
Early leasing for the building ― known as One65 Main ― has been strong, said Byron Long, who runs it for property management firm Bozzuto. Residents aren’t just people who work in Kendall, either. Some hop over the river to nearby Mass. General Hospital and downtown Boston, or jump the Red Line to Harvard Square.
“You can bike over the Longfellow Bridge and you’re right at the Esplanade,” he said. “It’s more than just Kendall Square here.”
While Kendall is increasingly plugging in to neighboring Boston, there are also many who’d like to forge tighter connections with the rest of Cambridge.
Some of the city’s poorest pockets are just outside Kendall ― big, affordable housing complexes and traditionally working-class neighborhoods being transformed by the life science boom but still home to many who feel like it’s in a different world.
“You can go from poverty to prosperity in a couple of yards,” said Tony Clark, cofounder of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, an advocacy group connecting young people of color with Cambridge businesses. “You have folks dealing with this myriad of mental health issues, walking past Nobel laureates.”
In a city with so many resources, and so many smart, well-meaning people, it seems like there should be more opportunities to bridge those gaps, Clark said, to help young people grow good careers, to provide counseling and other health services, even just to make space for community gatherings. But such efforts often fall short.
“There’s theory and there’s practice. That’s this city,” Clark said. “Folks want to have these theoretical conversations, but when it comes to putting things into practice, it’s not there.”
At the same time, there’s growing concern in some parts of the square that the expansion of huge tech companies — like Google, which just hung its trademark G on its new 16-story office building on Main Street — and global pharma giants is pricing out growing startups that generate many of Kendall’s ideas. So many young firms have moved to less-pricey locales that Shy Bird now routinely makes catering runs for old regulars to addresses in places such as Alewife, Watertown, and the Fenway.
“It wasn’t the people at the big tech and pharma companies who were ‘bumping,’ it was all these small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Jesse Baerkahn, who heads the real estate advisory group GraffitoSP. “It’s those folks who spend more time in the restaurants and the coffee shops and all that. How do we create space for them?”
One answer, Rowe said, is places like the CIC.
The co-working operator has seen more business lately from companies trading in traditional office space for something smaller and more flexible. Inquiries for new space at CIC hit an all-time high in March, Rowe said, and more people came through the door on the first Monday of June than did the same day in 2019. Workers may not journey to Kendall quite as often as they did before the pandemic, but when they do, they want to make the most of it and be in a place where they might connect with a potential collaborator.
That has always been the secret sauce of Kendall Square, McGuire said. And it will be again.
“A big reason Kendall has always been a center of innovation is because it’s home to this huge collection of people who know they can only be at their best if they’re around other talented people,” McGuire said. “That was true 100 years ago when it was rubber hoses and cardboard, and it’s true today.”
Read more about Kendall Square and explore the full On the Street series.