fb-pixel Skip to main content
paul mcmorrow

How to make South Boston a big draw for innovation

Joe Fallon is one of Mayor Tom Menino’s favorite developers. He’s also a heretic.

Fallon, the Fan Pier developer, is supposed to be the face of Menino’s relentless efforts to rebrand the South Boston waterfront as the city’s Innovation District. So when one of the builders with a stake in the waterfront’s transformation doubts the reach of Boston’s innovation push, it’s worth paying attention.

Fallon has built a string of projects that work together to push the South Boston waterfront past its recent pedigree as an urban backwater awash in commuter parking. The only reason the mayor can boast that Boston is home to the nation’s largest private construction project, as he often does, is because Fallon got Vertex Pharmaceuticals to swap Kendall Square in Cambridge for Fan Pier.


But at a roundtable forum last week with the city’s top real estate developers, Fallon spoke dismissively about the Innovation District as a magnet for new arrivals. “People aren’t coming to live here because of innovation or the Innovation District,” he said. “They’re coming because of the waterfront. Vertex is terrific, but it’s because of the area.” Seemingly sensing the heresy he’d just uttered, Fallon paused a beat before adding, “And innovation.”

Fallon was talking about residential development along the waterfront — he’s pushing to build the city’s first new condominium tower since the real estate crash. But doubts about the reach of a place called the Innovation District can be applied equally to the neighborhood’s commercial side. It’s unlikely that a Kendall Square-style strategy can carry the 20 million square feet of new development in the Seaport District’s construction pipeline.

Pessimism is a tough sell right now, since the Seaport District is one of the city’s hottest commercial markets. Companies that traffic in technology and creativity are snapping up office space in the neighborhood’s old shipping warehouses, and apartment developers are rushing to build places for all these new workers to live.


This shift was happening before the mayor’s staff saw it, and gave it a name. The marketing push has certainly helped things along. And although the positive developments along the Fort Point channel are much more attributable to an attractive urban environment and cheap office space than they are to the Innovation District moniker, the distinction isn’t worth arguing over. Cities should celebrate their success stories.

The danger comes in thinking that the stuff happening in the Fort Point warehouses, along with the Vertex deal on Fan Pier, can combine to magically turn acres of waterfront parking lots into a new technology cluster. Vertex could afford to leave Kendall for a prestige spot on the harbor because it had largely graduated from the research-heavy stage of a pharmaceutical company’s life cycle, which depends heavily on Cambridge’s academic talent.

This distinction is important, because the Innovation District really spans two would-be clusters operating side-by-side. They operate on distinct economic scales: The smaller companies that value cheap, funky office space aren’t the same companies that are going to fill the new office towers that will be built atop South Boston’s acres of parking lots. The future tenants of those new waterfront office towers will be paying about twice the rent as their smaller neighbors down the street. Like Vertex, those companies will be paying a premium price. They’ll be paying to be next to the waterfront.


Kendall Square, Cambridge’s tech cluster, is a magnet for small companies hoping to get acquired by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Novartis, and Biogen. The square has the office stock and the institutional infrastructure to support these startups. Taking the Innovation District concept at face value means running this play in reverse, and hoping that a cluster of smaller price-conscious firms will attract ones capable of paying the kind of rents that support new office construction.

That doesn’t mean the waterfront is hopeless. Instead of fighting to replicate what’s happening in Cambridge, the Seaport District should be fighting to become Waltham, but with a killer waterfront view. It has a real chance of becoming a choice landing spot for mature companies that are graduating from Kendall Square. But City Hall should be honest about the economics of building up the Seaport District, and market the neighborhood accordingly.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.