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What if they built a state-of-the-art biotech center and nobody came?

Long-vacant Allston site again proves location is key

It isn't often, stepping into a $120 million biotech lab facility, that one gets the urge to play a round of paintball. But once behind the gleaming steel-and-glass façade of Boston Tech Center in Allston, you could be forgiven for checking your supply of CO{-2} cartridges.

The interior of the hulking structure is dark and desolate. Bare concrete floors stretch for 400 feet. Plastic tarps crinkle in the frigid breeze. A perfect spot for faux guerrilla warfare.

But it's a not-so-perfect spot, apparently, for biotech laboratories.

Boston Tech Center, despite its prominent location on the Massachusetts Turnpike, stands in sharp contrast to the biotech building boom going on in Boston and Cambridge. Hospitals, universities, and private developers are planning or building hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of biotech lab space. Big pharmaceutical companies continue to establish outposts in Cambridge to access academia and tap talent. But for more than four years, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes of New England Inc. has been unable to find a life-sciences tenant for its 450,000-square-foot development.

Adam L. Berger, project manager for Cabot, puts on a brave face as he takes a visitor through an onsite sales pitch: 20- to 25-foot ceiling heights. Ventilation that moves vast volumes of air. An easy 25 watts per square foot of power. And room atop the reinforced roof for backup generators, water purifiers, acid neutralizers, and other esoteric hardware needed to keep a biolab running.

"Facility managers who come in love this building," Berger said. "It's an empty canvas for them."

But chief executives and others who make siting decisions have proven immune to the building's charms. Boston Tech Center, a finalist in several high-profile space searches, remains empty.

Asked how the project is going, Cabot's president, John J. Doherty, doesn't shy from the truth.

"Not well," he said. "The biotech market has been quiet for the last 24 months, and I don't anticipate that will change anytime soon. There aren't many users who need 100,000 square feet or more, and there's still a good deal of vacancy in Cambridge."

Said one Boston commercial real estate broker who works with life sciences tenants, "I'm real glad I don't own that building, real glad I don't invest in it, and real glad I'm not the leasing agent."

The problem, brokers and developers said, is the most fundamental defect any piece of real estate can have: location.

The giant rectangular building on Lincoln Street fronts the turnpike, making it a familiar sight to motorists heading into Boston. But it is more than two miles from the two centers of life-science activity in Boston: Kendall Square in Cambridge and the Longwood Medical Area. For most life-sciences companies, it might as well be on Mars.

Jeff Lockwood, a spokesman for Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, said the Swiss pharmaceutical firm looked at the space before deciding in 2003 to renovate the old Necco building in Cambridge near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "For us, the location of the Necco building is right in the thick of Cambridge, near all the activity in the life sciences," Lockwood said.

Boston Tech Center stands out for having missed a development boom not once, but twice.

The original building was constructed in 1914 by Carnegie Steel Co. as a warehouse. Decades later, the giant brick building was expanded and used as a warehouse by Casey & Hayes, the South Boston moving company.

In the late 1990s, when the tech and telecom markets seemed unstoppable, there was a short-lived craze for "telecom hotels" -- big buildings stuffed full of computer servers to handle seemingly endless Internet traffic. Old industrial buildings were well-suited for the new use: They had high ceilings, big elevators, floors that could accommodate tremendous loads, and room for powerful air-moving equipment to keep the computers cool.

Cabot, Cabot & Forbes had successfully developed a sophisticated "server farm" in Needham for Level 3 Communications, an information services firm based in Broomfield, Colo. Seeking to duplicate the experience, Cabot secured an option to buy the Casey & Hayes warehouse. Along with all the standard industrial building qualities, it was located just a few yards from a main fiber-optic cable running alongside the turnpike.

The gamble seemed to pay off. In June 2000, Globix Corp. signed a 15-year lease for the entire building. Cabot added two floors in a $100 million renovation. The structure was dubbed "Boston Internet City."

But the tech bubble had already burst. Globix shares lost most of their value in a few months. Just after Thanksgiving 2000, the company reneged on the lease. (The New York firm later filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors, and emerged from bankruptcy as a going concern in April 2002.)

What to do? "The company looked at the telecom market to see if there were any signs of life they could detect," said Berger, the project manager. "There weren't."

However, there was still life in life sciences -- biotech, medical devices, and basic research -- and those uses also benefited from the burly specifications of an old industrial building. Cabot opened up additional windows. One floor was reconfigured for two levels of parking, to accommodate higher staffing levels. At the request of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a glitzy facade was added to give the building visual pizzazz. And Cabot made plans for a big interior atrium with a coffee shop and other spots where employees could congregate.

Presto-chango: Boston Internet City became Boston Tech Center. But not much has happened in the four years since.

Last summer, a subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd., the international oil-services firm, looked at Boston Tech Center for its new research headquarters. In January, the firm decided to lease space on Memorial Drive near Kendall Square.

"That building was beautiful," said Anne Columbia, president of Columbia Group Realty Advisors Inc., a Boston firm that advised Schlumberger during its search.

But there was still the location issue. "The company's research scientists want to have easy daily interaction with the scientific community," she said.

Now Cabot's big hope is Harvard University, which is formulating plans to expand its campus in Allston, where it has vast real estate holdings that abut the Tech Center. But it could be years before the plans are clear, and even longer before the new academic centers sprout.

In the meantime, there is a glut of lab space.

Debra Gould, principal of Spaulding & Slye Colliers, a Boston real-estate services firm, said lab vacancies in Cambridge are at an all-time high of 24.6 percent. "Tenants have ample opportunity in this market before they have to consider looking at less desirable locations," she said.

Cabot's latest gambit to attract tenants: a proposed shuttle bus that would run to Cambridge and Longwood.

But the real hope is that Harvard will finalize its plans and confirm that Boston Tech Center isn't at the edge of a tired residential neighborhood, but in the middle of a burgeoning academic center. "Every day the Harvard plan comes closer to reality helps," said Doherty, Cabot's president.

Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at krasner@globe.com.

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