Steve Adams

Steve Adams

Developer Jay Doherty spent approximately three years negotiating with a trio of commercial property owners in West Cambridge’s Alewife neighborhood before closing on an $80 million acquisition of nearly 12 acres in August. 

“I like Cambridge, and that’s what’s left,” said Doherty, CEO of Boston-based Cabot, Cabot & Forbes. “Cambridge has emerged as one of the premiere spots for innovation in the world, and there’s no land left. People haven’t fully grasped what’s happened in Alewife in the past four of five years. We do.” 

Doherty’s firm was the first to take advantage of Alewife’s 2006 rezoning which encouraged multifamily development, building the 428-unit Atmark complex on Cambridgepark Drive before selling it for nearly $208 million in 2015. Approximately 2,000 apartments have been completed by developers in recent years along the dead-end street next to the northern terminus of the MBTA Red Line. And the Hanover Co. is proposing another 294-unit residential complex at the Vecna Robotics property at 36-54 Cambridgepark Drive. 

The influx of new residents has infused some vitality into an aging office and industrial corridor that’s overshadowed by Harvard Square’s vibrant street life and Kendall Square’s massive life science labs. 

“The strong theme of our planning at that time was how to introduce residential to the area and make it feel more like it’s part of the fabric of the city,” said Iram Farooq, Cambridge’s assistant city manager for community development. 


Saving Space for Industrial Users 

With Cambridgepark Drive nearly built out, deep-pocketed real estate investors are turning their attention to the “Quad” area on the southern side of the MBTA commuter rail tracks. Dozens of low-rise warehouse and manufacturing buildings occupy a 130-acre section between Concord Avenue and the railroad tracks. But as in many transit-friendly neighborhoods near the urban core, industrial companies are at risk of being displaced by higher-value uses such as office and lab space. 

“There was a lot of concern about losing some of those legacy uses that really serve the community,” Farooq said. “How can we retain some of the lower barrier-to-entry jobs?” 

The city’s Envision Cambridge study, which is led by land-use consultants Utile, seeks to retain pockets of light industry. It recommended allowing light industrial and manufacturing spaces on ground floors of new buildings. 

Developers could receive density bonuses to beef up the neighborhood’s sparse public realm, by including more open space, pedestrian and bicycle routes, public restrooms and even a public library. Minimum parking ratios would be eliminated. 

Recent acquisitions by experienced local developers hint at the intensifying demand for Alewife sites. 

Cabot, Cabot & Forbes gained control of the bulk of Mooney Street, a dead-end road near the Belmont line, as it acquired the Mabardy Gravel & Sand property, a U.S. Post Office sorting facility and multitenant warehouse last month. 

The multi-year negotiations illustrate the difficulties of acquiring commercial properties with operating businesses for redevelopment, Doherty said. The firm plans a community outreach period before floating redevelopment plans. 

A change of ownership for another 9-acre site within the Quad area could serve as catalyst for another major development. Dallas-based Invesco Real Estate in April acquired the four properties on Moulton Street, Wilson Avenue and Smith Place from Boston-based Davis Cos., which retained a minority ownership share. The properties are leased to tenants including Hyperion Catalysis International and Northrop Grumman Corp., and no redevelopment plans have been submitted yet. Davis Cos. declined to comment. 


No Let-Up in Lab Demand 

Life science space is likely to be a component of any mixed-use developments, as Alewife continues to be a fallback option for companies unable to afford Kendall Square rents. 

“Life science tenants put huge value on being in Cambridge and if they can’t be in Kendall Square, Alewife is the next best thing,” said Mark Winters, an executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank. “When you’ve got demand outstripping supply by five to seven times, you’re in a pretty strong position.” 

Newmark represents Davis Cos.’ in leasing of its 224,000-square-foot speculative Alewife Research Center (ARC) at 35 Cambridgepark Drive, which is scheduled for completion in October. One tenant, Lexington-based Ribon Therapeutics, has leased nearly 27,000 square feet so far. 

Not counting the ARC, Colliers International Boston is tracking just 50,000 square feet of lab vacancies in the Alewife submarket. Asking triple-net rents for lab space start in the $50s, still a substantial discount to Kendall Square. 

“The real estate assets are more spread out, and it’s been held back being a cluster of the magnitude of Kendall but the city is looking for ways to make it more of a commercial focus,” said Aaron Jodka, Colliers’ director of research. “You’ve have the Red Line and Route 2, and access to a tremendous pool of talent in the western suburbs.” 

Alewife’s Reinvention Has Only Just Begun

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min