Business

Watertown could soon see development spike

As development spreads out from Cambridge, residential, shopping and office projects could transform the area

Boylston Properties has proposed a $60 million office building dubbed Linx, which features a striking contemporary look that would make it perfectly at home in a trendy downtown square.
Boylston Properties and Spagnolo Gisness & Associates
Boylston Properties has proposed a $60 million office building dubbed Linx, which features a striking contemporary look that would make it perfectly at home in a trendy downtown square.

Cambridge’s bustling Kendall Square, with its proximity to world-class universities, access to public transit, housing, and nightlife, is often seen as the gold standard for Boston-area companies seeking office space.

But with Kendall and other areas in the urban core increasingly crowded and pricey, commercial developers are sniffing out underdeveloped neighborhoods within reach of Boston and Cambridge where they can catch some of the overflow.

The Boston developer Boylston Properties thinks it has a winner in East Watertown. The company has invested heavily in several projects along Arsenal Street, and its latest proposal, a $60 million office building dubbed Linx, has a striking contemporary look that evokes the same hip vibe as its Cambridge neighbors.

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“They’re not making more dirt in Boston and Cambridge,” said William McQuillan, the firm’s principal. “You go up the Charles River and Watertown is the next piece of land you reach, whether you’re a pilgrim or a real estate developer. It’s in the process of becoming a fantastic market.”

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The Linx proposal is for a wholesale transformation of an unremarkable industrial building currently occupied by Verizon, on a site set back across the street from the Arsenal mall complex. The design, by John Sullivan of Spagnolo Gisness & Associates of Boston, calls for splitting the boxy building in two, replacing concrete walls with glass, adding depth to the facade with a mix of materials, and creating a light-filled atrium lobby with a cafe and lounge.

The resulting building would feature 185,000 square feet of office space and significant landscaping improvements. Currently, the property is encircled by a chain-link fence.

Prospective tenants “are really excited about the architecture,” said Duncan Gratton, executive managing director of the real estate firm DTZ, which is the leasing agent for Linx. “They want high ceilings, concrete floors, funky looks — all the things they like about parts of Cambridge and the Seaport.”

The proposed Linx office building in Watertown would include 185,000 square feet of office space and a light-filled atrium lobby with a cafe and lounge.
Boylston Properties and Spagnolo Gisness & Associates
The proposed Linx office building in Watertown would include 185,000 square feet of office space and a light-filled atrium lobby with a cafe and lounge.

But it will take more than slick architecture to lure major companies out of the city. The real draw is a number of large development projects poised to break ground along Arsenal Street, promising to transform this second-tier commercial drag into a lively live-and-work neighborhood.

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The health care software company athenahealth Inc. is beginning an overhaul of its Arsenal on the Charles complex, set to feature a distinctly Kendall-like mix of uses: a theater, outdoor meeting spaces, a museum, parks, a beer garden, a farmers market, restaurants, a startup accelerator.

On the next block, Boylston Properties has teamed up with athenahealth’s chief executive, Jonathan Bush, and Wilder Cos. on a planned makeover of the Arsenal Project, formerly Arsenal Mall.

Boylston Properties also plans to break ground next week on a seven-story, 150-room hotel on the former Charles River Saab site, across from the mall.

Residential projects are in the pipeline, too. Hanover Co. has proposed building a mixed-use complex with 300 residential units at 202-204 Arsenal St.

“At one time, Watertown was just a relief valve for Cambridge tenants who wanted cheaper space,” Gratton said. “Now, Watertown is going to become a much cooler place. We look at it almost like it’s going to be Boston’s Brooklyn.”

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Office rents in the Linx project will be in the range of $40 to $45 per square foot, slightly cheaper than the rate for new construction along Route 128 — and a steal compared with Kendall Square rents that top out at $90 per square foot.

‘We look at it almost like [Watertown is] going to be Boston’s Brooklyn.’ --Duncan Gratton, a DTZ executive

Gratton said the relatively low price is an acknowledgment the area lacks a subway line or a nearby highway and that construction has yet to begin on most of the expected improvements.

“It would make my job easier if [Arsenal Street] had all that stuff now,” he said. “Instead, we have to sell the future, but in this case, the future is only a few years away.”

If the Linx project wins approval this summer, construction would begin in September and last about a year.

McQuillan said various technology, financial services, health insurance, and life sciences firms have already inquired about the space.

To some residents, the grand visions of developers seem ill-suited to their quiet suburb, and they have raised predictable concerns about traffic and other symptoms of increased density.

Watertown officials are trying to balance such quality-of-life concerns with their desire to score a cut of the region’s development boom.

The town is about to release a comprehensive development plan that preserves some areas from intensive development, but targets others, such as the Arsenal Street corridor.

Steve Magoon, Watertown’s director of community development and planning, said he doesn’t see Arsenal Street as another Kendall Square, but as a waypoint for growing, mid-size companies.

“A lot of the businesses coming out of Kendall, they’re growing, but they find the space there is just not available or affordable,” he said.

“Those companies come to places like Arsenal. And even if they grow more and leave for the suburbs, other ones are coming behind them to fill the space.

“Having that role in the region, it’s not a bad one for Watertown.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.