From the heart of Boston, the region’s high-tech-slash-innovation-slash-startup economy used to seem nebulous, undifferentiated, and distant — something that happened on faraway Route 128 or across the Charles Ocean, over near MIT. But the geography of innovation in the region is changing; the Globe’s BetaBoston recently reported that in 2013 Boston firms attracted more venture capital deals than those in Cambridge. As startups proliferate, the number of tech clusters is multiplying. And because of big differences in real estate and transportation conditions, and because the cultures of newer tech firms are often out of sync with long-established ones, the personalities of places like Boston’s Innovation District and Somerville’s Davis Square are radically diverging. That variation in vibe is worth encouraging. The easier it is for aspiring entrepreneurs to find kindred spirits to work among, the greater the incentive for all of them to stay.
KENDALL SQUARE: GROUND ZERO
Had John F. Kennedy lived, eastern Cambridge might have become NASA’s nerve center. Instead, once-vacant lots attracted biotech and information-technology firms that wanted to be close to MIT. The Cambridge Innovation Center, a foothold for small entrepreneurs, supports the region’s most varied startup scene. As Kendall matures, and out-of-town tech giants move in, savvy officials in the People’s Republic are sticking up for the tech world’s little guys: New zoning lets builders bust height limits if they set aside space for startups.
Former identity: The land NASA forgot
Cost per square foot: $57.85 (Class A, East Cambridge)*
Downside: Rapid Houston-style growth. Vast lab buildings with few shops send a harsh signal — “Stay at your desk, techie!”
Recommended if you like: “Brave New World”
The first wave of the local tech economy was decidedly suburban, as tech firms set up near Route 128. A longtime manufacturing center at the heart of that corridor, Waltham later became home to “Money Hill,” a concentration of venture-capital firms. And while Cambridge’s hoodie-and-flip-flops crowd still traveled to Waltham for funding, few stayed. Today, unsexy but promising data storage and medical-information startups fit in with buttoned-down older firms.
WALTHAM: ROUTE 128 REVISITED
Former identity: The Watch City
Distinguishing features: Office parks, Sun Belt-scale apartment complexes
Cost per square foot: $28.61 (office)*
Downside: Corporate aesthetic; limited transit
Upside: Older firms’ unimaginative attachment to revenue-based business models means they employ lots of actual people. Parking galore, if you’re into that. Silicon Valley is suburban, too.
Recommended if you like: “Office Space”
SEAPORT DISTRICT: A BRANDING EXERCISE GONE RIGHT
There were eyerolls when former mayor Tom Menino proclaimed an Innovation District in an area populated by older buildings along Fort Point Channel and windswept lots near Boston Harbor. But the Seaport District is filling in rapidly, and even changing the neighborhoods around it. On weekday mornings, A Street abounds with fresh-scrubbed professionals walking to work in the Seaport District from another once-neglected section of Southie.
Former identity: Cheap surface parking
Distinguishing features: Chain restaurants, traffic backups, cranes
Cost per square foot: $52.94 (Class A); $29.95 (Class B)*
Big names: Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Downside: Steep construction costs mean high rents. Lawyers seeking new-economy cred can pay; bare-bones startups can’t.
Upside: Glittering offices with water views are a powerful recruiting tool. Daunting real-estate environment has positive spillover: “It also forces other parts of the city, that should have more startups, to get attention,” says entrepreneur Jason Hanna.
Recommended if you like: SimCity
SOMERVILLE: BOSTON’S BROOKLYN
It’s easy to poke fun at Somerville, the hardscrabble-turned-hipster city now known for artisanal doughnuts and high-end drinking lids. But when The Grommet, which promotes undiscovered products, moved to its current office last year, it did the unthinkable: Though its front door opens in Cambridge, the company chose to use its back-door Somerville address, says co-founder Joanne Domeniconi, to emphasize its affinity with the “maker community.” Somerville’s manufacturing-friendly building stock attracts companies developing physical products, not flash-in-the-pan apps.
Former identity: Quirky ethnic patchwork; gulag for graduate students
Distinguishing features: 3-D printers, body art, fixed-gear bicycles
Cost per square foot: $23.20 (office)*
Downside: Looming Green Line extension will take years, but upward pressure on rents is already evident.
Upside: Target workforce of earnest 20-somethings already lives nearby. Proof positive that a lively, youthful atmosphere promotes growth, not curbside barfing.
Recommended if you like: Portland, Ore.; Portland, Maine
DOWNTOWN BOSTON: A CHEAP ALTERNATIVE?
Inexpensive isn’t a word often heard in the heart of Boston, but the Leather District, Financial District, and other nearby areas contain underused, down-at-heel Class B office buildings that are perfect for cash-strapped firms. The quirks of these properties become part of the startup experience: “In some cases, it’s not ideal,” says Will Foley, a broker with commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley, “but it’s almost a badge of honor.” In more recent buildings, bigger tenants can afford space vacated as banks moved back-office work elsewhere.
Former identity: Hub of the Universe
Distinguishing features: Faded but elegant exteriors, slow elevators
Estimated cost per square foot: $26.95 (Class B, South Station area)*
Downside: Finite supply of shabby but easily rehabilitated buildings
Upside: To newcomers unencumbered by memories of Central Artery, once-dingy areas look like an urban playground. Locations near North Station or South Station promise seamless transition if today’s Hubway riders become tomorrow’s suburban commuters. Downtown addresses proclaim, “We’ve arrived!”
Recommended if you like: Jane Jacobs
*Rent statistics compiled by Cassidy Turley