Please remember this as we rip into Mass. General’s expansion project

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff/file

I don't, of course, have the solution to rising medical costs. Or rising drug costs. Or rising college tuition costs. But what would Boston be without our expensive world-class hospitals, our biotech companies with their six-figure miracle drugs, and our $70,000-a-year universities?

Philly, without the cheesesteaks?

What got me thinking about this long-running question of Boston exceptionalism was Tuesday’s news that Massachusetts General Hospital wants to build a $1 billion-plus expansion to its facilities along Cambridge Street. MGH is rolling out its plans as Boston Children's Hospital puts up a new billion-dollar tower at its Longwood Medical Area campus.

MGH, part of the empire known as Partners HealthCare, will likely face opposition just as Children’s did. More on that later.


Meanwhile, over in Allston, Harvard University is constructing a science and engineering center that will be home to more than 400 graduate students, 450 researchers, and as many as 80 faculty members. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is building a “new front door” to the university, a 343,000-square-foot office building on Main Street in Cambridge. It’s part of a six-building, 1.8-million-square-foot mixed-used project including office space and housing.

And then there is the constant parade of biotech companies raising millions of dollars and setting up shop in Kendall Square — startups hoping to be the next Biogen or Vertex, and research outposts of giant pharmaceutical companies from around the country and the world.

All this is not meant to be a wide-eyed paean to the expansionist ambitions of our educational-medical-biotech complex. And, no, is not it a plea to save us from the ball and chain of unchecked real estate development.

The armies of construction workers and cranes that occupy Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are by-products of a high-end ecosystem that makes Boston unique: elite universities that train students who go on to work for the hospitals, research labs, and biotech companies. It's an ecosystem that makes Boston a world destination for complex medical treatment and research. It's an ecosystem that supports the development of breakthrough drugs. It’s an ecosystem that brings thousands upon thousands of bright kids to the region every year, many of whom stay to work and start businesses and families despite the weather and the traffic and the high cost of living.


Wait, I hear you say, what about our financial services sector? Aren’t our storied fund managers part of the ecosystem? Yes, but they are not the reason the ecosystem exists. Fidelity Investments is one of the most innovative companies in the world, and, yes, its funds help finance many companies. But if Abigail Johnson moved her company to Austin tomorrow, Boston would barely miss a beat.

None of this is new. But let's keep it in mind amid the opposition to MGH’s expansion plan that will inevitably emerge. As my Globe colleague Priyanka Dayal McCluskey has written, the project may end up being the largest ever proposed by a Massachusetts hospital, and it will add hundreds of new private patient rooms, a heart center, a cancer center, and operating rooms to a facility that is overcrowded and aging.

A few years ago, Children’s Hospital took a lot of heat when it proposed a new building because it meant the destruction of the Prouty Garden, a sanctuary beloved by patients, their families, and employees. But there were also serious questions about how the expensive project would impact costs for patients and insurers.


Children’s got approval to move forward with the $1 billion plan after a detailed cost-benefit analysis by the state (and after fending off attempts to protect the Prouty Garden).

The MGH project also should be thoroughly vetted by the state for its impact on health costs, and by the city and neighborhood residents for its impact on the quality of life. Some compromises might have to be made.

But I think we are smart enough to protect our town while making sure it remains something truly extraordinary — even without the cheesesteaks.

Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect location of the new tower at Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s on Longwood Avenue.