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Biogen Idec expanding Cambridge footprint

Return from Weston includes new buildings

By Casey Ross and Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / July 20, 2011

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Biogen Idec Inc. will construct two office buildings as part of its move back to Cambridge, where the biotechnology company is planning an expansive office and research campus to replace the headquarters it opened just a year ago in Weston.

George A. Scangos, chief executive, said the return of 530 employees to Kendall Square will put the firm’s entire Massachusetts workforce in a single location - at the heart of a rapidly growing cluster of pharmaceutical companies near Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We want to be the very best at what we do,’’ Scangos said. “We have a lot on our plate, and execution will be absolutely critical. Being geographically separated, there’s a barrier.’’

The move is a stunning reversal from Biogen Idec’s much talked about relocation of its corporate operations last summer to Weston, where the company constructed a gleaming building on the 74-acre site of a former stone quarry.

That Weston facility had been orchestrated by Biogen Idec’s former chief executive, James C. Mullen, who stepped down last June, following a battle with activist investor Carl C. Icahn.

When Scangos took over, he immediately chafed at being so far from Biogen Idec’s research and development labs that remained in Cambridge and began exploring a return to Kendall Square.

The company wants to break ground on its new office buildings there later this year. One will be a 190,000-square-foot building with an address of 17 Cambridge Center; it will be developed by Boston Properties. The other will contain about 305,000 square feet across Binney Street and will be developed by Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc., which is planning to construct five new buildings in the area in coming years.

With its new structures, Biogen Idec will have its 2,000 Massachusetts employees in six buildings in Kendall Square. The company was represented in its planned move by FHO Partners, a Boston real estate services firm.

Scangos said the company will seek to sublease the Weston building once it has moved to the new buildings in 2013.

“We’re not moving because we don’t like Weston,’’ he said. “Weston is a gorgeous place. [But] this . . . is a much more efficient way to run the business.’’

A leader in making drugs to treat multiple sclerosis, Biogen Idec is one of many global science and technology firms to expand operations in Cambridge in recent years. Pharmaceutical giants Novartis AG, Amgen, and Sanofi SA are growing in the area, along with the Broad Institute and other academic research labs. Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have also planted large flags in the neighborhood.

The area suffered a setback with the pending departure of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. to the South Boston Waterfront, but real estate specialists said Biogen Idec’s return will help to offset that move and spur additional development in the area.

“East Cambridge will see 1.5 million square foot of construction get underway in the next six to seven months,’’ said Steve Purpura, a partner with the real estate firm Richards Barry Joyce & Partners. “In any other market, you lose a tenant like Vertex, and everyone is running for cover, but Cambridge didn’t miss a beat.’’

Less certain is the future of the real estate market along Route 128. While Biogen Idec’s building will likely attract interest as a trophy property in the area, it may also drain companies from other properties or pending development projects. Moreover, suburban companies are increasingly being lured to rapidly growing city neighborhoods in Cambridge and on Boston’s waterfront.

“The trend is toward more urban-based developments,’’ Purpura said. “That’s where we’re going to see the next round of projects. The question is, what does it all mean for 128?’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.