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Life sciences firms flock to Route 2

Region attracts more start-ups

While the Cambridge real estate market overflows with life sciences companies, several Route 2 communities are sponging up the spillover.

Companies repelled by Cambridge's high rents are landing in Lexington, Woburn, and Waltham, where vacancies are high and rents about 30 percent lower.

Since 2004, Cambridge's biopharmaceutical industry, anchored by Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research Inc., has been recovering from the economic downturn of the early 2000s, when many companies closed up shop.

Today, real estate analysts say, top-shelf space for larger companies is tightening in the Cambridge market, and certain suburban markets are poised to attract the less-endowed, smaller start-up companies, or those with a maturing work force ready for a less urban setting.

"The Route 2 corridor really became a life sciences corridor in the suburbs," said Robert Richards, president of Richards Barry Joyce & Partners , a Boston-based commercial real estate company. "We are running into more and more companies who are saying, 'We don't need to be in Cambridge. . . . We want to be a world-class suburban site.' "

Last week, Richards's company released a report that showed 108,000 of a total 3.8 million square feet of laboratory space concentrated in Lexington, Waltham, Bedford, and Woburn were leased between April and September, lowering the vacancy rate from 23.8 percent to 20.9 percent.

"The Route 2 corridor remains the most common and logical path biotechnology companies follow if they move from Cambridge or deploy a suburban presence," according to the Richards Barry's third-quarter trends report.

Laboratory space is commercial space configured for research. The buildings come equipped with such infrastructure as fume exhaust hoods and backup generators -- whatever is needed to equip a research laboratory. The term life sciences refers to branches of science that deal with living organisms and life processes and can describe businesses related to these fields, such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and biomedical devices. According to Mary Kelly, chief research officer at the Boston-based commerical real estate company Meredith & Grew , of the 7.8 million square feet of existing laboratory space in Cambridge, less than 9 percent is available.

"As vacancy in Cambridge drops," she said, "rents increase. Once that happens, Lexington becomes an attractive alternative because the rents are more palatable and there's more availability."

Kelly added that rising rents are making Lexington locations such as the Hayden Avenue, Maguire Road, and Hartwell Avenue areas attractive alternatives.

In Cambridge , rents are as high as $60 per square foot. In the suburbs, they peak at around $40 per square foot, Richards said.

While most biopharmaceutical companies are drawn to Cambridge by of the talent pool from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some see Lexington, in particular, as a viable second choice.

Not only is the town close to Cambridge and connected to the Alewife T stop by shuttle, according to Dan Cordeau of Jones Lang LaSalle, real estate managers, but town officials long ago passed zoning bylaws to make it easy for research facilities to locate there.

"It's not like Cambridge is the only place you can hire a Ph D -level scientist," said Cordeau, who is senior vice president of the Boston-based company.

Even more significant, said Cordeau, is the work force transition for the industry. Once the reserve of fresh university graduates seeking an urban lifestyle, biopharmaceutical companies -- and their workers -- are maturing.

A company like AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals Inc., which in 2000 exapnded to a 260,000-square-foot research-and-development facility on Gatehouse Drive in Waltham, is not likely to leave the spaciousness of the suburbs to return to Cambridge.

"Once you become a part of a family," said Cordeau, "and you're raising your children, you tend to be less Cambridge-centric."

In Lexington, the 2020 Vision Committee is reviewing how the town can be more accommodating to businesses, said Selectman Richard Pagett.

"It's nice that the problem we're dealing with now is lack of space rather than how we fill space," he said.

There are three primary companies leasing the area's 3.8 million square feet of biopharmaceutical space. They are Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc., which owns buildings on Hartwell and Hayden avenues and Spring Street in Lexington, and on Bedford's Wiggins Avenue; The Beal Co s., leasing on Lexington's Spring Street; and Patriot Partners, which owns Lexington Technology Park on Patriot Way.

A fourth company, Woburn-based Cummings Properties competes by catering to cost-conscious life sciences companies and those in the start -up phases.

Farther west along Route 2, Devens is getting noticed for attracting Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. several months ago. Now a developer is converting a former military intelligence training facility, purchased from MassDevelopment, into 90,000 square feet of space for emerging technology.

"I don't think you're ever going to see a massive exodus from Cambridge in the research and development area," said Tim Norton, president of Apex Properties of Leominster, which is marketing the facility. "But many of the companies soon will be entering the manufacturing stage.

"Once they transition from purely research and development activities, which generally speaking happen in a lab, now they have to go out and either build a manufacturing facility or they have to lease the facility."

Still, the suburban real estate picture has a long way to go before it reaches the occupancy levels of Cambridge's core market. A number of large spaces remain available, including a few consolidations and sublets from downsized companies.

Last year, Praecis Pharmaceuticals consolidated its space at 830 Winter St. in Waltham, selling the bulding to Intercontinental Real Estate Corp. of Boston and leasing back a third of the space. About 80,000 square feet are available.

Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at crane@globe.com.

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