The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
WATERTOWN — Armon Sharei moved to Watertown before it was cool.
Five years ago, the CEO of SQZ Biotech, a fast-growing cell therapy startup that Sharei helped spin out of MIT, was looking for room to expand, and couldn’t find anything that made sense in pricey, jam-packed Kendall Square. So it settled into a low-slung brick building along Coolidge Avenue in eastern Watertown, not far from Mount Auburn Cemetery.
“It was close enough to Cambridge, but half the price,” he said. “At the time it felt like a bit of a shot in the dark. No one else was out here.”
But times have changed.
Today, Watertown’s East End is emerging as a hub of the region’s life science industry. Dozens of biotech companies — most of them smaller and younger operations looking for room to grow — have migrated there from Cambridge and Boston, their signs now on the older industrial buildings off Coolidge Avenue and taped to windows in the sprawling old Arsenal complex.
And bigger names may be coming, with large-scale projects opening and in the works in eastern Watertown, Watertown Center, and along Pleasant Street toward Waltham.
The biggest are coming from Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a giant of life science real estate that built a large chunk of Kendall Square, but has since shifted their eyes west.
In 2019, Alexandria paid $525 million to buy the 29-acre Arsenal on the Charles campus from athenahealth, and last year followed that with a $130 million purchase of the Watertown Mall, where earlier this month they filed plans for roughly 1 million square feet of new lab development, on top of about 100,000 square feet of building space already underway at the Arsenal.
“What you’re looking at is kind of a mega campus,” Alexandria CEO Joel Marcus told analysts after the Watertown Mall deal went public.
To understand what big investors like Alexandria see in this formerly-working-class ‘burb, just look at a map, said Duncan Gratton, executive managing director at real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. Eastern Watertown is a quick trip into Kendall Square or downtown Boston, for meetings or for young, urban-dwelling commuters. But it’s also easy to reach from the Mass Pike. There are good bike paths, but also plenty of parking.
Still, five years ago when Gratton leased his first building in Watertown — Boylston Properties’ LINX lab project on Arsenal Way — that wasn’t so obvious. Indeed, his LINX marketing materials intentionally left the location a little vague, because no one thought of Watertown as a life sciences town.
“Our tagline was ‘Where Cambridge meets Boston.’ We never even used the word ‘Watertown,’” he said. “That has completely flipped now.”
Sharei sees the shift, too.
He hears regularly from biotech CEOs who are thinking of making the same jump as SQZ — which since moving to Watertown has tripled its space and moved to a new office at Arsenal Yards. He sees the growing cadre of biotech workers frequenting restaurants and bars in the neighborhood (and so he tries not to talk too loudly about work when out and about, lest a competitor be at the next table). And, maybe most of all, he sees prospective employees thinking about working in Watertown in a way they didn’t a few years ago.
“It used to be that when people were searching [online] for jobs they’d exclude Watertown on their filters. Now they add it in,” Sharei said. “It has suddenly become much more normal to want to be here.”
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