By Chuck Tanowitz
Over the past four years, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, in partnership with the City of Newton and the Town of Needham, has embarked on an effort to attract innovation economy businesses, entrepreneurs and employees to two-square miles of office parks and retail corridors near the Charles River and I-95. We branded this initiative the N2 Innovation District and have seen some success in attracting technology, life sciences, media and other businesses to the area.
N2 grew out of the realization that the innovation economy drives Massachusetts’ economy. To ensure that our local tax base could sustain and grow, we wanted to position ourselves competitively, especially in relation to the hot commercial markets of Burlington, Waltham, Boston, and Watertown.
But innovation doesn’t happen in office cubicles. It happens when people interact, not only in their work lives, but going about their daily business. It happens when people connect, not just in the places where they’re paid, but in the places where they eat, shop, have fun, and simply enjoy life.
This is why the mixed-use project that Northland Investment Corp. has proposed for 23 acers in the heart of the N2 Innovation District is so important to our region’s and our project’s success.
Northland’s Newton project creates a needed gateway to N2. It creates public gathering spaces. It creates 180,000 square feet of office space for small and mid-sized companies. It funds shuttle buses that connect N2 to local transit. And it provides 800 units of desperately needed housing for our local workforce.
It is precisely these features – and the density that comes with them – that we need to grow our economy and bolster commercial tax revenue in both municipalities.
Let’s back up to explain why.
When we launched N2 we hired a consultant to research a basic question: Can an innovation district succeed in the suburbs? In a nutshell, the answer was “Yes… but…”
Our consulting team confirmed what we already suspected: Newton and Needham are home to many of the people who drive innovation in Greater Boston. The report found that in 2015, our local population produced patents – a core measure of innovation -- at the staggering rate of almost nine times the national average.
But it’s not just that a high concentration of entrepreneurs live in Newton and Needham; so do many of Greater Boston’s top investors and venture capitalists. Adding to our innovation street cred is the fact that more than one-fifth of our local population is foreign born and our adults are far more educated than the typical Bostonian.
On the other hand, our consultants noted, N2 lacked the physical infrastructure to really take off. Innovation happens when people of different backgrounds have the chance to meet and talk, like at coffee bars or public parks. It happens over lunch or when people stop in at a beer garden after work. It happens during meetups and networking events that occur in the space between work life and home life. It happens when people get out of their cars and walk, bike or take public transit.
Office parks and parking garages don’t do that. In those environments the space between work life and home life is just the distance between the office and the car.
Early on, we tried a workaround by doing a few of the things you see in urban innovation districts. We hosted N2 meetups and talks in local bars. But once employees left work for home, they didn’t venture back out. So we shifted our efforts to focus on having events closer to the workplace like block parties, food trucks, and establishing the Greenway Arts program. And these work to a degree, but they still require more of a place in which to gather.
We’ve been missing that central place; a link between work and home. That’s why the Northland proposal is so intriguing. The company’s architectural team has created a design that includes ten acres of open space, including a central common where hundreds of people can gather, as well as a community center. It includes co-working. A transportation hub. Walkable streets. A dog park, a playground and retail frontage – all essential ingredients needed to make an innovation community grow.
And it brings rental housing to a market where 70% of our housing stock is single family homes, and a roughly equal percentage of the population owns homes or condos.
Of course, many Newton residents and city leaders say they’d prefer a greater proportion of commercial development, which contributes more local taxes.That’s understandable given that Newton’s commercial tax base is only 8.7% of the total revenue, compared to more than 30% in Boston and Waltham and 18% in Watertown.
But in the economic development plan recently commission by Mayor Fuller and ratified by the city council, authors noted that: “to support commercial development it will be necessary to make transportation improvements and to increase both the number and types of residential units to attract and retain a more diverse population.”
In other words, in order to attract and retain more businesses here and to grow our commercial tax base, we must also address the housing problem. One won’t happen without the other.
Traffic is also an understandable concern for everyone. But, creating housing closer to jobs is part of the solution, not the problem. The vast majority of Newton workers, 85%, leave the city to work daily while 89% of Newton’s workers commute in. This mismatch clogs our roads and trains.
Needham has started to address this problem. The Kendrick, 390 units of rental housing which opened in late 2018 with corporate neighbors like SharkNinja, Bigbelly Solar, and TripAdvisor, is seeing employees from those companies moving in. Workers want to reduce their commute and live close to where they work.
Northland’s proposal goes one step further. It not only reduces commutes through proximity, but also adds a modern shuttle system to move workers, residents, and customers out of single-occupancy vehicles and into higher-capacity buses.
All of this benefits innovation and our economy. If people are out interacting rather than isolated in cars, then they have the opportunity for the happy accidents and interactions that lead to innovation.
Chuck Tanowitz is the N-Squared Innovation District director and a Newton resident.