Making a high-tech mecca
Kendall Square’s path to bustling research center may hold lessons for Harvard planners
Joseph Tulimieri, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s executive director, sits in his office, overlooking a crowning achievement of his 40-plus years with the agency: Kendall Square.
Once dubbed “Nowhere Square,’’ Kendall Square has become one of the most sought-after high-tech centers on the planet, a global mecca for life science and information technology, research and commerce. Cities and universities around the world aspire to re-create Kendall Square’s mix of laboratories and office space, scientists and entrepreneurs, students and venture capitalists.
The latest entrant is Harvard University and its recently announced plan to create its own version of Kendall Square in Allston. But if the original’s history shows anything, Harvard faces a long and arduous path.
Kendall Square’s transformation from urban wasteland to futuristic high-rent district was hardly a straight line, requiring stops, starts, and nearly a half-century to complete. It included botched plans, neighborhood outrage, and some plain, old-fashioned luck.
Tulimieri chuckled when asked what advice he has for Harvard.
“My words of wisdom are this: You won’t do it overnight,’’ Tulimieri said. “It is a sequential process. And it’s going to take longer than you thought.’’
Harvard has no timeline or cost estimate for its plan, which has yet to be approved by the university’s president. A team of deans, faculty, and alumni has recommended construction of a massive 36-acre life sciences park in Allston, buttressed by a new academic research facility. The shift is a dramatic one for Harvard, which has long shunned commercial development of its academic research, as it tries to take a page out of a book that MIT began writing decades ago in Kendall Square.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has long been at the center of innovation and research; the sewing machine, microwave oven, and the first computerized spreadsheet are just a few of its innovations with Kendall Square roots.
Yet for a good part of the past five decades, the Kendall Square area was a wasteland of parking lots and abandoned factories. In the mid-’60s, with the promise of a new NASA space center locating there, Cambridge acquired and razed more than 40 acres around Kendall Square as part of an ur ban renewal effort.
Nearly 100 businesses were relocated at government expense, yet the project never lifted off. After the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who backed NASA’s move to Cambridge, congressional support for the project dwindled. Although NASA had constructed several buildings on the site, the project was eventually lost to Houston, in the home state of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
“It was a huge dilemma,’’ Tulimieri said. “And every city council member had a different idea of what he or she wanted done.’’
Luckily, a former Massachusetts governor, John A. Volpe, was named secretary of transportation in the Nixon administration in 1969. Volpe helped locate the National Transportation Systems Center in part of the former NASA site.
That did not solve all Cambridge’s problems. About 23 acres surrounding Broadway in Kendall Square sat flattened and dormant. Some of the only activity in the area were places like Draper Laboratory, a Cold War era engineering lab started by MIT, and an area known as Technology Square, where Polaroid Corp. was then located.
It took almost a decade, but by the late 1970s, the city selected Boston Properties, headed by Mortimer Zuckerman and MIT alum Edward Linde, to embark on an audacious plan: develop 13 acres of Kendall Square as an office park with laboratories, retail space, and a hotel. The empty chain-link lots filled with rubble that made up much of Kendall Square were available for bargain basement prices, Tulimieri said.
“It was a very bleak time when the Kennedy Space Center moved to Texas,’’ Zuckerman said. “There was just a lot of land there.’’
Ultimately, Boston Properties developed 23 acres, including many of the buildings in the triangle of land where Main Street and Broadway meet near the Longfellow Bridge. Today, Biogen Idec Inc., a leading biotechnology firm, occupies many Boston Properties buildings. The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is there, as is the Broad Institute, a major research hub.
Yet the story of Kendall Square is not a series of “real estate events,’’ said Tim Rowe, chief executive and founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which offers space to more than 400 tech start-ups. It has been a center for discussion and ideas since the Depression era, when clusters of MIT students and professors gathered at a local diner to debate “the next big thing.’’
In more recent history, Rowe said, waves of biotechnology researchers, start-ups, and spinoffs large and small have rolled through Kendall Square. Amgen, Genzyme, and Biogen wanted to be there because “they wanted to hire the cutting edge in talent,’’ he said.
The next significant wave of innovators worked in information technology, drawn to the area by the promise of research and companies like Lotus Development Corp. Lotus, a software company that began in a Cambridge basement, had become a significant presence in Kendall Square by the mid-1980s, and inspired a host of Internet-related start-ups led by young, T-shirt-clad executives.
“Scientists want to be near other scientists,’’ Rowe said. “Kendall Square is where science and product creation happen. It’s striking that there are almost zero law firms and accounting firms.’’
There is now more than 15 million square feet of business space in Kendall Square. About 90 percent of the office space and nearly 85 percent of the laboratory space is occupied, according to a survey earlier this year by the Kendall Square Association.
Robert Krim, a management professor at Clark University who has studied the area, said commercial success in both technology and biotechnology have only bolstered Kendall Square’s reputation as a hub for aspiring and established scientists. Those commercial successes were apparent this year, when Genzyme Corp., once merely a promising biotech trying to come up with cures for rare diseases, was sold to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi SA for $20.1 billion.
“I think it’s very hard to replicate something [like this],’’ Krim said. “But if anybody can do it, Harvard might be able to.’’
Yet even officials at the world’s top research institutions view Kendall Square primarily as a neighborhood with its own peculiar identity, a place where scientists can meet to discuss angiogenesis or algorithms over a beer, or dine next to a Nobel laureate.
Draper Laboratory president Jim Shields, who graduated from MIT in 1971, said he goes out of his way to meet other researchers and entrepreneurs in the area because those connections are key to developing new solutions to old problems. Draper engineers, for example, are working with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital to find a cure for tuberculosis, teamwork that would not have occurred 20 years ago.
“Our strategy is to collaborate,’’ Shields said. “Our strategy is to make a plate of cookies and walk down the street and make friends. You can do that here.’’
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.