Tuesday, March 26, 2013

New Construction: These numbers just in.

In 2012, Cambridge witnessed groundbreakings for over 1.8 million square feet of new construction, almost all of it in Kendall Square.

Meanwhile across the river in Boston, three million square feet of new construction is underway right now in their innovation district, with another 20 million planned.

This deserves an exclamation point! These are very large numbers in very small geographic areas.  If ever there were statistics that screamed "Cities are the 'it' thing in 2013", these would be them.

We're a long way from 1975.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Remember to chew before swallowing.

After Mitt Romney's crash and burn in the 2012 elections, the radio waves were alive with anger, gloating, recriminations and analysis over the outcome.  Sensible people on the right (which means only not on the extreme fringe) pointed out that this is the fifth time in the last six presidential election cycles that the Republicans have lost the popular vote.  Of course that's true.  Starting in 1992, in every election but one, Americans have chosen the Democrat over the alternative: Clinton, Clinton, GORE, <Bush>, Obama, Obama.

Still, the wisest observation I heard about GOP's problems boiled down to this: "George W. Bush is an undigested political fact in the Republican Party."  

Also true. Without facing the long trail of destruction that Bush 43 and the neo-cons left in their path (dare we call it their "trail of tears"), the Right's hope of building a winning national coalition will be held back a generation at least.  My advice: Start chewing.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kendall Square, a brief historical sketch.

[Note: The panel discussion on innovation districts held in April at Harvard's GSD is viewable by clicking here.]

Kendall Square is the story of the life and death and rebirth of an urban landscape in the heart of one of the Northeast's most important regions, the Boston metropolitan area.  Kendall Square is also the story of the transformation of the American economy from industrial powerhouse immediately following World War II to today's post-industrial knowledge economy.

It is odd to look at a 1947 aerial photograph of eastern Cambridge and realize to what degree industry was an integral part of the urban fabric.  What today would be referred to as "noxious uses" -- industrial machine shops, gas storage tanks and the like -- were very much woven into everyday life in cities across the country, even in university enclaves like Cambridge.  While these uses were often put on waterfronts because in a pre-environmental era flushing waste into water bodies was seen as an acceptable solution to an otherwise challenging problem, these types of facilities were never far from the homes of the customers they might be serving or from the labor they might be employing.  The side-by-sideness of it -- industry so near residential -- is very foreign to American sensibilities in most urban centers these days, but it was taken as fact by urban dwellers of all income-strata.

1947 view of Kendall Square with old industrial uses.  Residential commences just outside of photo.

By the 1960s, times were changing.  The long-term viability of the city's industrial base eroded while John Kennedy's 1962 promise to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade produced land-use consequences in Cambridge.  This was the era of governmental reach and big visions.  NASA was in growth mode and chose to site its Electronics Research Center in the city, in part because its administrator James Webb had long-standing ties to MIT.

NASA Electronics Research Center under construction in Cambridge, circa 1966

Meanwhile, the promise of urban renewal animated many decisions in municipalities across the country.  These two forces combined to radically alter the landscape of the eastern section of Cambridge.  The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority worked with all deliberate speed in conjunction with the federal government and local officials to assemble land and clear it.  The CRA didn't stop at the boundaries of the NASA property.  Everything out to Binney Street was stripped of buildings.

Kendall Square as it appeared in late 1970, with all the land cleared by Cambridge Redevelopment Authority

NASA unexpectedly departed Cambridge in 1970, the only NASA center ever to close.  While there is some speculation that Richard Nixon's antipathy to the Kennedys had something to do with the decision to shutter the facility, it nevertheless left Cambridge with an unpleasant question: once you've created a moonscape, how do you repopulate it with buildings and people?

The answer they came up with: do a plan, then find a developer who will build.  In a decade-long effort culminating in the 1979 agreement between the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and Boston Properties, the CRA spelled out a grand vision for the land, and the developer promised to deliver.

This is the plan that Boston Properties has followed since the initial agreement in 1979.

And deliver they did.  Over the following decade, Boston Properties constructed close to 2 million square feet of new buildings on lots that had been used for parking.

A 1975 photo looking west on Main Street. On the right are the parking lots that will be filled in.

A 2013 Google Earth view of Main Street, with the parking lots on the right completely filled in.

There is widespread agreement that this urban fabric falls short of current tastes, but back then a building was a very welcomed thing.  Cambridge is trying to retrofit this area now, but today's concerns are worlds away from the challenges of 1975.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dogs and cats (and dinosaurs), Oh My!

There are matters of great consequence to discuss.  We are creatures of mind and body and spirit.  Literature awaits our thinking selves.  As do politics.  So similarly, science and religion. History, yes! Languages, ancient and modern, they too can join!

So was I ungenerous yesterday to turn a haughty nose up in the Harvard Coop?  Yes, it's a place where generations have trod ... to get their readings, begin their learnings, march down the path of academia, knowledge, thinking.

I felt first a blip of surprise that comes when an odd notion passes before your mind.  Then with further reflection (and hardening confirmation) came a light grip of disdain coupled with fleeting queasy nausea.

Why, I asked myself, were there so many damn books about dogs and cats on the display tables of the Harvard Coop?  I mean, where the hell have we come to?

The questions flowed like water: Is this a fad? Is it like a virus that has swept through the book publishing world?  Is Cambridge, MA one of those target audiences, too smart to read Proust, but not too overburdened to read about Fluffy?  I mean really!

It's an odd coalition when a book publisher sees a market, a bookstore sees a customer, a book reader sees a non-threatening topic in which to while away some time, and book writers -- all serious and committed -- pump this stuff out.  It is where economics meets Zeitgeist, and it all aligns to produce this.

Herewith is my evidence.  You be the judge!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Push out leaves to look for light, these little plants, that's what they do.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Union made.

Eddie Wright wasn't going to take "shut up" for an answer.  The former business agent (read: president) of Iron Workers Local 7, Eddie was having his moment in the spotlight, and he was going to have it, all of it.  Last week's NAACP annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast was the venue, and after a long life of lifting iron, organizing men, fighting bad developers, and building the cities of Cambridge, Boston and the region, now was his time to talk.  Eddie Wright was being recognized.  Eddie Wright was being honored.

Eddie Wright isn't a tall man.  Perhaps he's 5'6", and that's stretching it.  But he's a stout fire plug of a big heart.  He's a Cambridge kid through and through.  Back when you could be a working class boy from a working class family in this town, he was one of them.  Silver-haired now, he remembers his old neighborhood with the touching fondness of age and loves his high school even more.  He's a Rindge man -- that is, the old Rindge Tech.

Eddie Wright is from a dying breed: working class whites who linked their politics to Robert Kennedy and accepted his dream of America as their dream of America.  Deeply conservative in some ways, these men are more radically liberal than most every person in the audience last week at the Cambridge Marriott.  Eddie Wright is not a yuppie and never was one.  Eddie Wright is not a man of iChat and Google Earth and cappuccinos.  Eddie Wright is from a time when organized labor was a force in our economy and working men were hard hard men, but strong enough inside and out to raise the liberal banner.

Eddie Wright, a man who has organized many a picket line in his day, told the story of Martin Luther King organizing pickets in the South in early Civil Rights days.  Eddie commented to his well-healed listeners just how hard it is to maintain a picket for 365 days, something King was able to do.  Of course, the protests were getting people arrested.  That was in part the point, but no one had money for bail.  Eddie said a rich Jewish philanthropist from New York City who also happened to be a Communist was posting bail so the protesters could exit jail and go right back out on the picket line.  This was the "struggle" part of the Civil Rights struggle, and Eddie Wright knew it intuitively better than the multi-racial audience he was talking to.

Eddie Wright is not the glossy veneer of most Cambridge liberals.  He's not Harvard-cut and groomed, all polished to vote Democratic and own a Volvo.  He is the remainder of the dying world that liberals say they want to protect, but most have never seen.  

Eddie Wright is also a man who could have walked off the screen of a Sydney Greenstreet film.  But he's real.  And he is a treasure.