It all started when my beloved Russo’s grocery in Watertown was sold for $38 million to a developer with plans for a 200,000-square-foot life-science lab on the site. After that I saw labs rising everywhere: on Guest Street in Brighton; on Galen Street in Watertown; in Somerville’s Union Square. Estimates vary, but according to a recent report by Lincoln Properties, 32 million square feet of lab space is either under construction or fully permitted in Greater Boston, with another 36 million square feet proposed. That’s roughly enough for 35 Gillette stadiums. “It’s like tulip mania,” one Boston architect told me, referring to the speculative bubble in Dutch tulip bulbs in 17th-century Holland.
I can’t begrudge the Russo family for cashing out after generations of hard work, and of course the local biotech industry has given us life-saving drugs, not least the COVID-19 vaccines. Plus, communities desperate to revive their downtowns in the wake of the pandemic covet the jobs this industry brings, since lab technicians don’t generally work from home. But it’s hard not to wonder if we are reaching “peak lab” — indeed, one new study suggests developers are starting to tap the brakes — and to consider the risks of betting too much on one industry.
For one thing, unlike traditional offices, labs are not easily converted to other uses. They can require massive investments in security, extra high ceilings to accommodate specialized lighting and ventilation systems, floors that can handle heavy equipment loads, and high-level waste management. Any lab building that fails isn’t going to make an easy transition to condos.
Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, the president and incoming CEO of the trade association MassBio, is still bullish on continued growth in life sciences. “I don’t think we are hitting the peak,” she said in an interview, noting that lab rents in Boston and Cambridge remain the highest in the country, and that even in areas like Worcester or Burlington many properties are fully leased before they hit the market.
But even with current development, the lab boom is creating another related problem by crowding out critically needed housing construction. All the focus on building labs is driving up land prices and diverting resources. According to MassBio, at least 40,000 net new jobs will be created from life-science projects currently under development. Where will these people live?
“The number one economic problem in this region is the lack of housing, and affordable housing specifically,” said Marc Draisen, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which calculated in 2015 that Eastern Massachusetts needs more than 400,000 new housing units by 2040 to keep up with growth. “We have got to admit to ourselves that we are far behind.” It’s to the advantage of biotech companies to make sure housing keeps pace with job growth, he said, because attracting talent is a top priority for the industry. “We believe private developers have a responsibility to contribute to housing for the workers they’re going to employ.”
Some larger cities, such as Boston, have linkage programs that require commercial developers to contribute to a housing fund as a condition for zoning approval. Late last year, Mayor Michelle Wu announced the city would examine whether its linkage requirements could be strengthened, including a possible separate assessment on labs. Those studies are ongoing. But Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, noted that some lab developers have stepped up to pair their projects with affordable housing. “I think there’s a trend,” Dillon said in an interview, pointing to an air-rights parcel over the Mass. Pike and another across from police headquarters in Roxbury, as among those that include affordable housing along with labs. “Developers are hearing from the city and the neighborhoods that they need to provide more housing solutions associated with their lab space.”
But Boston can’t do it alone. Because of the peculiarities of Massachusetts governance, all 351 cities and towns have their own competing rules regarding zoning trade-offs, if any. In 2018, a group of 15 Boston-area mayors pledged to cooperate on producing 185,000 housing units by 2030, but the pace is lagging. These communities, too, need their booming biotech firms to be active partners.
The growth in the life-sciences sector is vastly altering both the economic and physical landscape in the state. While the industry is working to improve the health of millions in its shiny new labs, it shouldn’t shirk responsibility for the larger social health of the region.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.