Like many US cities grappling with globalization, Boston has been hemorrhaging industrial jobs for decades. But the shift in the city’s economy to knowledge-based industries such as life sciences and technology has provided new business opportunities for boutique manufacturers that use 3-D printers and other sophisticated equipment.
If only those companies had a place of their own in Boston.
The rapid redevelopment of former industrial areas such as the Seaport District has left Boston with less than 5 percent of its land zoned for just industrial uses. Now, at an abandoned rail yard on the outskirts of the city, officials hope a new project will help them lure industry back to Boston.
The “Yard 5” development is a group of low-slung buildings that will be built on former MBTA land in Hyde Park that will offer studio-sized industrial workspaces, each from 4,000 to 7,000 square feet, to as many as 51 businesses. The developers expect to receive the go-ahead from City Hall soon, and already Boston officials are shopping the Yard 5 units to prospective tenants around the country, telling companies that the development shows Boston is serious about restoring its industrial sector.
“We want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the city,” said John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development. “If we’re not paying attention to those types of jobs, our economic ecosystem is weaker, and we’re not as attractive to these companies and institutions.”
Yard 5 will consist of five one-story light-industrial buildings and a three-story office building. The studios will have robust high-voltage electrical systems, high ceilings, loading docks, and other features prized by industrial businesses.
“Most of the manufacturing and industrial businesses in Boston own or lease functionally obsolete facilities, and have to rehab them at great expense to stay there,” said Matthew O’Connor, vice president at First Highland Management and Development Corp., the Yard 5 developer. “This is a rare opportunity to have a modern facility with a Boston address.”
Work on the 21-acre site, the subject of an intensive environmental cleanup by the MBTA in 2011, is scheduled to begin next March. Two buildings will be erected next year; construction of the remaining buildings should begin in spring 2017. First Highland, which already operates the Boston-Dedham Commerce Park nearby, said the project would create 100 temporary construction jobs.
O’Connor expects to draw a diverse mix of small businesses, from medical device makers and robotics companies, general contractors, and other building trades. He thinks the project’s modest-sized units and location across from the Readville commuter rail station will be particularly attractive to companies that do “smart” industrial work, such as product development and prototypes, and are trying to hire young people from local universities who want to live in the city.
“Yard 5 is on a micro scale, and that’s appealing,” said Kevin Hanna, a principal at real estate firm Cassidy Turley who specializes in industrial and commercial properties. “For people trying to develop products, being able to perfect it locally where the brainpower is — that’s very interesting.”
In First Highland’s pitch to city regulators, the company suggested the project’s modular, customizable units could be ideal “makerspaces.” These are workshops shared by a rotating cast of artisans and inventors who pay membership fees to use the space and equipment. Others in the region are thriving: In Somerville, the nonprofit Artisan’s Asylum has attracted a roster full of small manufacturing firms whose employees “hack” bicycles, tinker with robots, and brew beer in its warehouse space.
“The makerspace movement is real, and if you don't have light industrial space for them, you’re going to lose those businesses,” Barros said, explaining that a recent visit to Industry City, a campus of historic warehouses in Brooklyn that have been converted into industrial space for startups and artists, had left him feeling jealous. “We’d be foolish not to include them in our planning.”
But some involved in the makerspace movement are doubtful that Yard 5 will be a fit for these business; a makerspace, they argue, doesn’t start with empty buildings, but a community of tinkerers.
“What startups need is not space. It’s knowledge and connections more than anything,” said Rich Breault, founder of Lightspeed Manufacturing, which collaborates with the MassChallenge accelerator program to help young companies manufacture products. “I’m sure there are economic advantages to being down there from a cost standpoint, but where’s the advice, support, and guidance? It’s all about the community and building a team.”
‘This is a rare opportunity to have a modern facility with a Boston address.’
Breault suggested Yard 5 would be a better fit for more mature startups that have completed a round or two of fund-raising and have a well-developed product. He worried that the somewhat remote location of Yard 5 — in a far corner of the city with few of the restaurants and street life the startup community thrives on — could be a turnoff.
Yard 5 may eventually seem less removed if more frequent light-rail service, expected to begin at Readville station in 2018, comes to fruition.
“It’s a lot about the talent and demographics,” said Hanna, the broker. “I’ve seen plenty of similar developments succeed in the suburbs, but young people want to live in the city.”
First Highland, Hanna said, “could be onto something.”Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter at @Daniel