Innovation hub seeks to improve transit and amenities while creating jobs and tax revenue
An often-overlooked corner of Newton, Watertown and Waltham is quickly becoming a new hub for innovation and is the focus of a new economic development initiative, spearheaded by the Newton-Needham Chamber and a coalition of a business and municipal leaders.
The newly-designated Charles River Mill District is already home to dozens of innovation economy businesses, many of whom are operating out of eight historic mill buildings in the area where the three communities intersect.
But observers agree that the district (sometimes blandly referred to as “the area over by Russo’s”) lacks an identity, amenities for employees and adequate public transportation and traffic mitigation.
“We’re looking to change all that,” said Newton-Needham Chamber president Greg Reibman.
The CRMD’s partners include top municipal leaders from Newton, Watertown and Waltham as well as state Rep. John Lawn, whose House district overlaps most of the CRMD. It also includes the Newton-Needham Chamber, the Watertown-Belmont Chamber and area property owners and businesses.
“The goal is to create new jobs and tax revenue for all three municipalities, transit and infrastructure enhancements for the entire region, and places for a new generation of entrepreneurs to work and live,” Reibman said.
The coalition introduced the CRMD concept at an event last month. They plan to continue the effort by lobbying the state and MBTA for resources; holding events and programs for employees and employers; and assisting in marketing the area.
The district encompasses 2.6 million square feet of office, technology, manufacturing and industrial space and 1,000 recently built multi-family residential units. CRMD lies at the nexus of numerous transportation connections to Cambridge, downtown Boston, the Mass. Turnpike, Route 128 and several roadways along the Charles River. That makes it ideally-suited for companies that may have outgrown, or can’t afford to operate, in Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District and are looking for alternative locations in the inner suburbs.
Michael Grill, president of Fairlane Properties, Inc., owner of Chapel Business Center in the CRMD, said the district’s location appeals to many employers because they can attract talent from both the western suburbs and from the inner core communities of Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge while paying rates that are 50 to 66 percent lower than comparable space in Cambridge and along Route 128.
The restored brick & beam décor and high ceilings found in most of the CRMD’s eight mill buildings are also attractive to employers and employees, as is free parking which is unavailable in Cambridge and downtown Boston, Grill added.
Grill came up with the idea and name for the district following a meeting he had in early 2014 with Jonathan Poorvu, owner of the adjacent ChapelBridge Park, yet another of the restored buildings in the neighborhood.
“I contacted the owners of the largest eight buildings in the market and most thought it was a good idea,” Grill added.
Grill and Hillary Brown, a principle partner at Fairlane, brought the idea to Reibman, suggesting that the chamber and city consider drawing attention to the start-up community that was growing in their neighborhood. As a model, they pointed to how the chamber, in partnership with Newton and Needham, had been promoting the N2 Innovation Corridor initiative - a program designed to attract and nurture innovation economy businesses along Newton’s south side and the Needham Crossing area.
“Hillary and I wanted the chamber and the city to recognize that innovation and technology were abundant in the Nonantum area of Newton and that Greater Boston should know about our area,” said Grill.
Reibman said he was “stunned” by the variety of innovative companies that were thriving along Chapel and Bridge streets.
“I called [Newton] Mayor [Setti] Warren and told him he needed to come meet these amazing entrepreneurial companies as well,” he said.
Warren toured Chapel Business Center a short while later and immediately concluded that he should reach out to his counterparts in Watertown and Waltham to discuss a joint effort similar to the partnership Newton has enjoyed with Needham and the chamber in advocating for improvements in N2 Corridor.
“Regional partnerships allow us to more effectively grow our economies and improve transportation infrastructure, ultimately improving the quality of life for our communities,” Warren said. “We are stronger together and I am looking forward to continuing to partner with Waltham and Watertown and our private sector supporters on the Charles River Mill District.”
He said Watertown, Waltham, Needham and Newton officials have pledged to meet regularly as part of a larger economic development strategy to further foster the development of the region’s innovation economy.
“This is how business, chambers and government should collaborate,” Reibman said. “Grill, Brown and Poovu had an idea. Mayor Warren recognized the amazing entrepreneurial energy here and in partnership with state Rep. John Lawn began to lay the groundwork that brought us to this point.”