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scott kirsner | innovation economy

Sustaining startups in a no-frills building (manual elevator included)

The Kingston Building (right) is attracting firms being pushed out of Kendall Square by high rents.
The Kingston Building (right) is attracting firms being pushed out of Kendall Square by high rents.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Walk down Kingston Street from the fringe of Downtown Crossing toward the newly rehabbed Chinatown Park, and you’ll see Sparkling New Boston on your left and Gritty Old Boston on your right.

The tower on the left offers $3,000-a-month studio apartments and an excellent restaurant, Townsman, that dishes up a $33 duck breast from the Hudson Valley. The six-story building on the right has no restaurant, no Starbucks, no central air conditioning, no marble-lined lobby, and no commanding views. Built in the late 1880s by a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, the Kingston Building has elevators so old they still have metal accordion doors and require operators to level them off at the right floor.

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Boston these days is Crane City, with new Class A office buildings popping up like Pokemon all over the Seaport District and Kendall Square, and condo and apartment towers for overseas investors and the six-figure set being erected everywhere else. It’s easy to overlook the value of something that is increasingly scarce: cheap, unpretentious office space. Also, buildings that look and feel like Boston, as opposed to a mirrored box that would fit in fine in Phoenix.

But I’m not just making a case for distinctive architecture or historic preservation. The block between Essex Street and the new park is mostly filled by growing architecture, design, and urban planning firms, and startup companies and a venture capital firm. Many were driven out of Kendall Square by rents that only the likes of Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Amazon can afford.

In Kendall, you can rent a swell office for $60 and up per square foot; on Kingston Street, when startups began migrating across the Charles, some found space for less than $15 per square foot, though today’s prices are closer to $30.

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Buildings like the Kingston Building “really sustain the startup scene,” says Matt Bellows, chief executive of Yesware, a Boston company that creates software for salespeople. “It’s got a great location, nice open space, windows on three sides, and it’s cheap.” After spending two years in the building, Bellows says, “we only moved out when we got over 50 people, and the lines for the two tiny bathrooms became too long.”

When one tenant moves out, or gets acquired, it often sells (or bequeaths) office furniture to the next company that moves in. And Susan Hunt Stevens, chief executive of WeSpire, a maker of human resources software, says she has been a customer of several other businesses in the building, like Moo, which makes business cards and paper products, and Price Intelligently, which helps companies analyze and perfect their pricing structure.

The building’s earliest tenants were dry goods merchants, hatmakers, textile companies, and bonnet frame makers. When owner Ron Druker’s family acquired it in 1947, some of the tenants produced neckties and handbags. And while many of today’s companies craft websites or digital models of college campuses, some still make stuff. One street-level space is home to Fortified Bicycle, which makes rugged bikes for city riders, as well as theft-resistant accessories. Upstairs, a company called Airmada is designing an automated landing pad and pit stop for aerial drones, so that they can be maintained without much attention from human operators. Moo prints its cards not far away, at a facility in Lincoln, R.I.

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Katie Rae and Reed Sturtevant are both former Microsoft Cambridge employees who started an early-stage investment fund, Project 11 Ventures, on the campus of MIT, where they were teaching a course. At the Kingston Building, they invite companies they back, like Airmada, to work out of their space until they grow to 20 employees — one company just moved out this month. Often, traveling friends and colleagues drop by to borrow a desk and mooch off the Wi-Fi. Instead of dining across the street at Townsman, Rae says, the startup set is more likely to head to the Chicken and Rice Guys, a popular Middle Eastern storefront nearby, or Gracenote Coffee for an espresso fix. A former tenant in the Project 11’s third-floor digs, Phil Beauregard, says he put in such long hours working on a venture that made software for restaurant managers that he occasionally slept in the office — “probably more than I’d like to admit.”

The types of businesses in the Kingston Building are those that you might expect to find in the waterfront area that the late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino dubbed the Innovation District (better known as the Seaport). But that neighborhood is now dominated by larger companies like Vertex, John Hancock, State Street, and the accounting firm PwC, all occupying brand-new buildings. That has created “the odd situation,” writes Gregory Janks by e-mail, “where we could get a great space (grungy!) in a location with mature transportation options and great restaurants for a cheaper price” than the Innovation District. Janks is cofounder of DumontJanks, a planning and design firm in the Kingston Building.

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The Kingston Street block has about 100,000 square feet of space, says Druker, president of the Druker Co. All but 2,500 square feet are occupied, and he says the last bit might get leased soon. (One issue the prospective tenant raised: extending the hours the elevator operators are on duty.)

Back in 2012, several of the building’s tenants watched — and felt the tremors — as a brick building across the street was demolished. The quaintly named Dainty Dot Hosiery Building was also built in the 1880s. But it was acquired by developers in 2006 and knocked down after the Boston Landmarks Commission chose not to grant it historic status. In its place came the $130 million, 26-story high rise that contains Townsman and the Radian apartments.

As a result, there are persistent rumors that the Kingston Building could be endangered, too. (Like the Dainty Dot, it also lacks landmark status.)

Druker says he was “upset” that the building across the street had to come down and said he “feels no pressure whatsoever” to sell or make any major changes to the string of buildings he owns on Kingston. “I like the way they are, and the buildings are very financially successful for us.” He says he has avoided making changes to some of the vintage signs on the building’s exterior — one of which, Farley Harvey Co., advertises a dry goods company founded before the Civil War. Druker adds, “We have no plans to do anything there, but who knows what the future will bring?”

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That’s true of many hot neighborhoods these days, in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Which makes it important to remember that while shiny, new buildings are nice for impressing out-of-town visitors or luring Fortune 500 companies, gritty old cheap space is essential if we want to be a city that has room for fledgling companies focused on the future.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.