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Kendall starting to work as a home

Kendall Square has developed into a vibrant neighborhood with a farmers market, where people shopped recently. Kendall Square has developed into a vibrant neighborhood with a farmers market, where people shopped recently. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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Ijad Madisch is thrilled with his new neighborhood. It has restaurants, a riverside walkway, a skating rink, even a farmers market. He enjoys getting together with neighbors to barbecue, watch a movie, or just hang out.

But Madisch doesn’t live in the suburbs or even an established residential section of the city; he’s at home in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, best known as one of the nation’s prime biotechnology and research centers.

“Most of my friends live in Harvard Square and downtown Boston,’’ said Madisch, a 28-year-old entrepreneur. “But I love it.’’

For him and an increasing number of other people - mostly academics and young professionals - Kendall Square is becoming a place to live and play, as well as work.

In February, Madisch moved from Hannover, Germany, to become one of the first residents in an upscale 482-unit development called Third Square. He can walk to the offices of his start-up, ResearchGate.net - a professional network site for scientists - as well as to his job across the nearby Charles River at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Since 2006, more than 1,700 residential units have been built in and around Kendall Square, making it Cambridge’s fastest-growing residential area - albeit an expensive one - according to city officials. In addition to its glittering business towers, the area has long boasted access to public transportation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But in recent years it has been filling a noticeable gap by adding homes to the mix, mostly in luxury high rises where rents can soar above $4,000.

Across the street from Third Square, MIT professor Lawrence Susskind, 62, has watched a high-tech mecca blossom into a bona fide neighborhood. Weary of his commute from the western suburbs, Susskind moved into the luxury 23-story, 230- unit Watermark Cambridge building shortly after it opened in 2006. The 10-minute walk to work was key to Susskind’s housing choice, but he also likes the area’s burgeoning character.

“There’s lots of graduate students with little children. You get on the elevator and there are 10 languages,’’ he said. “It feels like a real place.’’

Tim Rowe, president of the newly formed Kendall Square Association, a community improvement group, said a place that was once a residential wasteland after work is showing signs of life around the clock.

“You can now walk through these well-lit areas where people actually live,’’ said Rowe, who is also chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which provides office space to start-up companies. “It’s really transformed.’’

Beth Rubenstein, Cambridge’s assistant city manager for community development, said Kendall Square’s residential growth has been “dramatic’’ in recent years, based on the number of new housing units, although there are no up-to-date population figures.

As more people choose to live in the square, a growing number of restaurants and other businesses are catering to their needs. For instance, the Hungry Mother restaurant is open until 12:30 a.m., and The Friendly Toast, which opened in late May, already has a line of customers for breakfast on weekends. Two new restaurants are expected to open on the first floor of the Watermark early next year, said Alex Twining, chief executive of Twining Properties, which owns the Watermark.

Last weekend, neighborhood residents gained a new way to access the Charles River, thanks to Charles River Canoe & Kayak, a rental company that opened at a boat dock off Third Street, at the foot of the Watermark building. The dock is adjacent to a waterfront walkway that opened in July, and a park that will be completed this month. Nearby on Athenaeum Street, an outdoor skating rink will open for its third year this fall, and a local farmers market just completed its third season.

All of this doesn’t mean Kendall comes close to rivaling the vibrancy of some of Cambridge’s better-known - and more eclectic - squares, like Central, Inman, and Harvard. With most of the new residential units considered upscale, many people who might want to move to the area can’t afford the rents, limiting its potential for diversity. To encourage diversity and provide opportunity, all new developments in Cambridge must have 15 percent of their units designated as affordable.

Then there is the problem of putting food on the table; Kendall Square still lacks a grocery store.

“We are working to make it more vibrant and interesting around the clock,’’ Rubenstein said. “The residential projects are quite new. We expect in the wake of those you’ll see more restaurants, coffee shops, and dry cleaners.’’

The effort to create a 24-hour environment in Kendall Square has been underway since the early 1960s when technology companies began to bloom, attracted by MIT and Harvard University, according to Robert Simha, an MIT professor and former director of planning for the school. Over the last 10 years, the city began to change zoning laws to mandate residential construction, he said.

In February, Cambridge approved zoning changes to allow California-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities to build a 12.6-acre biotech park that will include up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial and lab space, 220,000 square feet of housing, and a minimum of 20,000 square feet of retail, the city said.

“They were strongly encouraged to include housing and retail to ensure this will be a vibrant 24-hour neighborhood,’’ said Rubenstein. “The idea is not to have it become a traditional office park that is quiet at night.’’

Despite the buzz of activity, however, the area has not been immune to the recession. Twining Properties has delayed plans to build a hotel, Twining said, and Third Square’s developers turned a portion of the property into high-end apartments after an unsuccessful attempt to market them as condominiums.

Still, new resident Michael Reich is confident the area will develop more. Drawn to the area because of available start-up office space, Reich, 34, a Harvard Business School student and entrepreneur, said he is content in his home at the Watermark, which features a Zen garden and dramatic views of Boston.

Like Third Square, the Watermark’s pleasures come at a hefty price. Rents in the building range from about $2,000 to more than $4,000.

“I wouldn’t move away from here,’’ Reich said. “If you have to drive for grocery shopping it’s worth it.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.