‘Innovation corridor’ is a plan to enliven office parks<br/>
Today, the two suburban office parks straddling Interstate 95 on the Newton-Needham line are filled with low, drab buildings, many with empty windows and realtors’ signs advertising space inside. Workers walk from their cars to their offices and back again, and after 6 p.m., it’s a ghost town.
But in a few years? Imagine tall, modern structures, young professionals living close and biking to work at technology companies, a robotics firm testing mechanical marvels on the grass outside
its doors, food trucks standing by at lunchtime, and live music at night.
This is the dream behind the “N2 Innovation Corridor,” envisioned as a high-tech hub of up-and-coming businesses in the spirit of Kendall Square or Boston’s Innovation District that officials in Newton and Needham hope will revitalize this more than 500-acre patch of worn-out suburbia.
“It used to be that I would drive through this office park and get depressed by the number of ‘for lease’ signs,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. “Now, I drive through this office park and get really excited. Now I see a bunch of possibilities.”
The project, formally named in October, will be anchored by online travel giant TripAdvisor Inc., which broke ground on a six-story, 280,000-square-foot headquarters building on the Needham side of the N2 Corridor last month. The company is outgrowing its current Newton location, and Needham last year offered it a major tax break to relocate, calling its addition to the park a “game changer.”
“The idea is to really bring [the park] into the 21st century and to make it a regional business center, with a major focus on technology-related business, of which TripAdvisor will be a centerpiece,” said Dan Matthews, chairman of the Needham Board of Selectmen. “Town governments don’t make business happen. But what we can do is we can create conditions that help.”
The borders of the N2 Corridor have been left intentionally blurry, but the project will include improvements to Needham Street and Highland Avenue.
The state this month approved Newton for designation as an economic target area, which will allow the city to offer similar tax incentives to companies, said Mayor Setti Warren, though the city has no specific recipient in mind.
Officials from Newton and Needham have been working together for the past year to create a regional technology corridor, he said.
“We’re really, really excited about the N2 Corridor,” Warren said. “We think we can be just as competitive at attracting companies as other areas of the state. We’re excited, we’re ready to go.”
There is still much work to be done. If the N2 Corridor is to become a reality, said Reibman, it needs three things: infrastructure, transportation, and something a bit more elusive — that “coolness” — that Kendall Square and the Innovation District seem to possess so effortlessly. The “bump factor’’ — running into people you know while cruising around — is crucial, he said.
“Cool places aren’t something you can legislate,” said Reibman. “But you need it.”
Infrastructure is coming. The state’s add-a-lane project will hit the local stretch of Route 128 in the spring, and will include widening the highway and constructing new on- and off-ramps at Kendrick Street, according to state Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes.
As far as additional transportation, Matthews said, Needham would like to see improved bus connections with the MBTA’s Green Line, with either Needham Street or the unused railroad right-of-way that runs between Needham Heights and the subway/trolley tracks behind Easy Street in Newton used for bus or shared bus-and-bicycle routes.
“The town is welcome to contact the MBTA with its comments and suggestions,” said a spokesman for the transit agency in an e-mail.
Newton is already working on a rail trail for bikers and walkers, and Warren said the city is exploring the possibility of bringing the Hubway bike-sharing program into the city.
But officials say it is up to the private sector to seize the opportunity that the municipalities have created through zoning and tax incentives.
Reibman said the mission over the next few months will be to get the word out about the N2 Corridor. A steering committee, of which Reibman is a member, is organizing events, and is planning two in February.
Some have already heard the call.
Janice Caillet of Newton has been looking at potential buildings in the N2 Corridor to house a co-working space — a shared office space where entrepreneurs, startups, self-employed, and regular 9-to-5’ers can work and interact, swapping ideas and insights or ducking into private rooms set off from the crowd.
“We are social animals,” said Caillet. “When I look at what we want to create, I look at human instinct, what’s missing from society, and what do we need to bring back to feel alive again?”
Caillet has worked with teams in Philadelphia to open two co-working spaces, and was part of another team in the United Kingdom that revitalized a third. She envisions the space in the N2 Corridor as a nexus for people of all stripes: not only people with careers, but people who may need a gentle way to reenter the workforce, such as victims of domestic violence or seniors bored with retirement.
The developers of the TripAdvisor property, Justin Krebs and Mark Roopenian of Normandy Real Estate Partners, also partnered to build the Marriott Residence Inn that stands next to the TripAdvisor site, and said there could be demand for another hotel as more businesses move in. They said they are in talks with at least four potential tenants for new buildings: mostly new-economy businesses such as technology, software, or biotechnology, they said, while declining to be more specific.
One thing the N2 Corridor will need, said Matthews, is more housing.
“In the old days it was always thought you keep the business separate from everything else,” he said. “But what we found is traffic has become a tougher and tougher issue, and people want to be able to live near their work.”
Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, a real estate development company that built Charles River Landing, a 350-unit apartment complex on Second Avenue in Needham, is proposing another project at 135 Wells Ave. in Newton that CEO Jay Doherty said would cater to the young “innovation workforce.”
“This workforce doesn’t look for what people used to look for in housing,” he said. “They don’t look to own; they look to rent, because it’s a more mobile workforce. They look for walk-to or bike-to proximity to their workplace.”
The Wells Avenue project, Doherty said, would have 334 studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments. While the proposal needs approval from the state and the city, Doherty said, developers are considering including a dry cleaner, a cafe, and a co-working space, as well as yoga studios and bicycle parking spaces. Traffic mitigation in the area, he said, would include adding bike lanes.
“We have most of our existing employment base in the suburbs,” said Doherty. “The best way to revitalize that base is live-work-play.”
The housing proposal has drawn criticism from some who work out at Boston Sports Clubs, which currently stands at the site.
Isabelle Albeck, 66, who lives in Newton’s Waban section and plays tennis at the club, said that losing the indoor courts and pool would be a major blow to the city. She said that club employees would lose their jobs, Newton would lose more green space, and traffic would be even worse than it is now.
Albeck said she started a petition that gathered 240 signatures in three days. She had not heard of the N2 Corridor, and said she did not have an opinion on it.
Candace Havens, Newton’s director of planning and development, said the housing proposal is still in the very early stages, and is under review.
The N2 Corridor is still a long way from being realized, and there is no single silver bullet to make it happen, said Chuck Tanowitz, who is a member of the project’s steering committee. Tanowitz said he hopes to see industries such as robotics wind up in the corridor, and to see food trucks, live music, and companies running buses from downtown Boston to bring in their employees.
“This sounds a little bit trite, but it’s almost like, if you build it, they will come,” he said.
“If there’s an exciting place, people will try to find a way to be there.”