A rendering of the Cambridgeside mall during happier days for its third-floor retail space (above) compared to a rendering of the space once the third floor is partially converted to lab space. Images courtesy of New England Development (top) and Jacobs (bottom)

The third floor of the CambridgeSide mall went from underused retail space to office space in 2019, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to lay demand for office space low the next spring.

Now, landlord New England Development wants to turn that office space into laboratories following a playbook that’s become familiar to Greater Boston office landlords in the last few years.

New England Development has filed a request with the Cambridge Planning Board to modify the special permits for its 1.08 million-square-foot revamp of the East Cambridge mall into a mix of multifamily, office, retail and lab space in a clutch of new high-rises in place of several big-box stores and one of the garages on-site.

The company wants to take 84,000 square feet of office space on the mall’s third floor originally converted from retail space and reprogram it as lab space.

The change, if approved, will cut office space on the third floor from 140,000 square feet to 56,000 square feet, with 275,000 square feet permitted elsewhere in the new buildings rising on-site. Total lab space in the development will rise to 685,000 square feet.

A limited greenroof and rooftop planters will be added to the mall’s Canal Park entrance to screen ventilators and other equipment added to service the new lab space, but little to no changes to the mall’s exterior or public-facing indoor spaces are planned, Planning Board filings show.

Because the special permit allowed 84,000 square feet more lab space that was included in the company’s plans, and because the office-to-lab switch won’t substantially change the building’s footprint or overall size, New England Development is asking for the change to be approved as a minor amendment to the permit, instead of through a more substantial process.

The 13 million-square-foot Cambridge lab market saw 533,000 square foot of positive absorption in the second quarter, according to Newmark research, with the average asking rent topping $114 per square foot and forecast to rise even as 2 million square foot is under construction in the area. The larger life science real estate market in Boston is being buffeted by uncertain economic conditions, Newmark said, causing the startups whose rapid expansion landlords have relied on to fill their spec-built buildings to slow or pause growth, leading to an uptick in sublease space. However, large multinational “Big Pharma” companies continue to take hundreds of thousands of new square feet as it comes online in the Cambridge area.

As of May, at least 200,000 of the lab space under construction at 60 First St. has been leased to two biotechs, Koro Bio and Prime Medicine.

CambridgeSide Seeks to Convert ex-Storefronts to Lab Space

by James Sanna time to read: 2 min