It may not be Silicon Valley or San Francisco’s South of Market, but Boston has a vibrant startup scene. And it would be even more vibrant if startups could find affordable office space anywhere nearby. Cambridge’s Kendall Square — home of local outposts for Google, VMware, Microsoft, and IBM — is prohibitively expensive and the Boston Seaport “innovation district” is getting there.
But relief may be on the way. Boylston Properties and the Wilder Companies have bought Watertown’s Arsenal Mall and Harvard Vanguard building for $70.5 million — and reportedly will convert a good chunk of that 225,000-square-foot property to incubator space. The deal has been in the works for awhile. Athenahealth has already purchased the corporate center next door for $168.5 million. Together that’s a good chunk of land right next to the Charles River and within easy bus reach of Watertown Square and Harvard Square. Plans also call for a former Saab dealership across the street to be converted into a hotel.
In July, when he discussed his pitch in The Boston Globe, Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush said the plan was to transform the parcel from “a black hole into a cool place to live and play.”
I might dispute the black hole bit, but Boston dearly needs more affordable space for startups and Bush told the paper that the ultimate goal was to extend the area’s innovation zone with lower rents and startup-friendly amenities from restaurants to boutiques.
Watertown abuts Cambridge, Boston, Newton and Waltham. The mall itself had its time in the national spotlight during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers when its parking lot was used as a staging area for law enforcement.
The need for affordable or even near-affordable space is critical for local startups — many of which spin out of research work at area colleges. The dearth of affordable space was a top topic at a recent GigaOM meet-up in Boston. And, earlier this summer, at a Kendall Square event geared to show off the area’s attractions for local startups, one CEO told me he planned to move his company back to San Francisco because it’s cheaper there. Gulp.