The next hot place to work? Look north to the Orange Line corridor
Last fall, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone attracted attention when he proposed that Amazon build its second headquarters not on a single campus — like the one Boston envisions at Suffolk Downs — but strung across four stops of the MBTA’s Orange Line, from North Station to Assembly Square.
The idea apparently was creative enough for Amazon to jointly name the Somerville and Boston bids one of 20 finalists for the giant “HQ2” project, which the company says could create as many as 50,000 jobs.
But even if the tech giant puts its 8 million-square-foot complex somewhere else, the Orange Line corridor is poised to emerge as a major office district. The old railroad and trucking route through Charlestown, Cambridge, and Somerville that Curtatone dubbed “Amazon on the T” is changing fast, catching spillover business from pricier Kendall Square and downtown Boston.
“This is not the Seaport, and it’s not downtown,” said Chris Kaneb, whose Catamount Management Corp. is moving ahead with plans for a 13-story office building at Hood Park in Charlestown. “But there is a lot of potential here for companies that want to be close to downtown, on transit, and with good access to the suburbs.”
Kaneb isn’t the only developer to see that potential. From Boston Properties’ Hub on Causeway tower atop North Station to a pair of mixed-use projects at Assembly Square in Somerville, nearly 7 million square feet of office space is under construction or permitted in the corridor, enough to bring tens of thousands of new workers to the area. Even more jobs could be added if Boston pushes forward with a redesign and redevelopment of congested Sullivan Square.
The office space expansion got a jumpstart in 2016, when Partners HealthCare relocated more than 4,000 employees — many of whom were working in Boston — to a striking building at Somerville’s Assembly Row, over a newly built Orange Line stop.
Another large employer, the Dutch technology company Philips Healthcare, will move its North American headquarters and innovation center — along with 2,000 jobs — from Andover to Cambridge Crossing in 2020, filling the first of several large office buildings planned for an old rail yard between the Orange Line and the planned Green Line extension.
There is more to come. Telecom giant Verizon last week signed a lease to fill most of a 651,000 square-foot office tower at the Hub on Causeway , with room for perhaps 3,000 workers, while Catamount’s Kaneb is seeking city approval for 450,000 square feet of office space at Hood Park that he hopes will give the plant science firm Indigo room to keep growing there. Fresh off signing Philips at Cambridge Crossing, Divco West recently began “spec” construction on a second building there without a tenant, a nine-figure bet that someone will sign a lease before it’s done.
Most developers are looking to work with companies that want to be in the core of the region — near public transit lines that move the young workers they want to hire — but also want locations with lower rents and more space than in the city’s hottest neighborhoods.
“You’ll hear companies in, say, Burlington, saying its harder and harder to attract talent, while at the same time saying, ‘Do we really have to be in the Seaport?’ ” said John Baxter, executive vice president at Cresset Development, which is planning a 1.5 million-square-foot office and housing complex called XMBLY next to Assembly Row. “And there’s a lot of people who commute into town every day who think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to stop here?’ ”
It’s a common refrain heard on the city’s edges these days, from the Alewife section of Cambridge to Boston Landing in Brighton to the former Boston Globe headquarters in Dorchester — places where developers are turning old buildings or little-used land into large office projects that rent at a discount compared with downtown prices. In addition to nearby public transit, all of these sites boast good highway access, which makes them more attractive to suburban companies and their suburban-dwelling employees, most of whom are unlikely to relocate if their jobs move.
“Companies want to be attractive to younger knowledge workers,” said Don Briggs, executive vice president at Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building Assembly Row. “And they’re thinking ahead about five or 10 years from now when those workers buy houses in the suburbs.”
Transportation access is one reason Philips chose Cambridge Crossing. The company wanted to be closer to researchers and startups in Cambridge than it was at its campus in Andover, said Dr. Joe Frassica, its chief medical officer and head of research. But it also wanted to be in a place where workers could get in and out easily.
“The location was pretty much perfect for our kind of operation,” he said. “It has proximity to Kendall Square, proximity to Boston, and three train lines. It just seemed like an ideal spot.”
Philips likes it so much the company already has expanded. It signed a lease in January to take five floors — 243,000 square feet — of the 11-story building and has since decided to take two more.
The Philips building highlights an unusual aspect of the Orange Line corridor: It’s not always clear what city you’re in. The medical tech company’s building straddles the Cambridge-Somerville line, and parts of the 45-acre Cambridge Crossing project touch Boston, too. Curtatone pitched Amazon on sites in all three cities and has worked with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh since Boston and Somerville were jointly named the region’s HQ2 finalist. It’s a notable shift from not-so-long-ago days when the three neighbors would scrap over landing companies and their jobs.
“Realistically, a company like Amazon is interested in the Greater Boston region,” said Tom Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development. “Larger companies in particular probably couldn’t care less about the peculiarities of the place. They’re interested in the workforce, which we all share.”
There are, of course, challenges to further commercial development. All of the new office complexes — and those in the planning stages — rely on the Orange Line to move commuters, raising questions about how much businesses should contribute to the cash-strapped transit system. In addition, current demand is largely driven by companies looking for a lower-cost alternative to Kendall Square and downtown Boston. When the real estate market inevitably cools off and prices dip, will Charlestown look so appealing?
Phillip Page is betting it will. He’s vice president of strategic partnerships at Cambridge College, which last fall consolidated its two Cambridge locations into one campus at Hood Park. He’s also an Orange Line regular and sees on a daily basis street work and housing construction underway around his school’s new building. Page said it’s creating an energy that he hopes will draw companies to the corridor on its own merits.
“We had a sense of the transformation of this area,” he said. “But I think people were concerned that all this stuff was going to be years away. Well, it’s happening right now.”