Tourists sit briefly in Kendall Square at a nonworking fountain. A consultant agrees with city officials: The square needs more public amenities and housing to grow into a more vibrant area. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Kendall Square has the highest number of biotech and information technology firms per square mile in the world, but the city needs to invest more into its retail and residential development, and possibly create a “signature, marquee event” to attract international attention, a consultant told officials June 7.

The consultant, Ranch Kimball of the Boston Consulting Group, was presenting a study called “Protecting and Strengthening Kendall Square” alongside Tim Rowe, of the Kendall Square Association, at an Economic Development, Training and Employment hearing on leadership and business strategies for the square.

The figures are stunning: Looking at seven U.S. innovation centers, Kendall Square is the most densely packed by far in terms of brain power, with 165 biotech and high-tech firms in a single square mile (technically a density of 163.4 firms per square mile). The next closest looked at by the consultant is Palo Alto, Calif., at a mere 36.4 firms per square mile; Research Triangle Park makes the list with only a single firm per square mile. Harvard Square and the Longwood area of Boston also make the list, with 74 such firms and a density rating of 20.6.

The presentation given at the meeting can be seen by clicking here.

The presentation included testimony from residents who praised the square as “One of the most dynamic and innovative places in the United States” and “a hub for researchers and entrepreneurs who are pushing the limits of science and business,” but at the same time identified the need for more retail and night life:

“Don’t get me wrong, I am much happier living here than in New York City, but there is nothing to do here after work. We need some pubs, more restaurants and retail … You don’t start or end your day in Kendall Square. I always stop on my way to work or on my way home to go to the gym, buy groceries or get a prescription filled.”

“Kendall Square’s great vitality of innovation needs to be matched by vitality of life,” city councillor Leland Cheung said.  “Kendall has many strong points. It is the foremost of the tech world, it is easily accessible via public transportation and is it in the same city as two of the greatest research universities in the world, but it needs an external identity.”

Flat Top Johnny’s is in the One Kendall Square complex, identified by city councillor Leland Cheung as a success story for the square. (Photo: Sushiesque)

He called One Kendall Square, with restaurants such as The Blue Room and The Friendly Toast and entertainment such as a billiards parlor and Kendall Square Cinema, which plays mainly independent and foreign films, “a great first step to developing a 24/7 community in Kendall.”

“The success of this development proves that Kendall Square is a viable area for retail growth as long as we continue to attract unique businesses that offer services not found in surrounding areas,” Cheung said. The councillor, as well as others on the City Council, has been pushing for retail and homes in the area, including taking steps to ensure promised housing gets built if zoning ordinances are expanded to include additional lab and office space.

Kimball’s recommendation to develop a “signature, marquee event” such as the South by Southwest festival of music, film and technology put on each year in Austin, Texas, has been hinted at more than once by Cheung’s fellow councillor, Ken Reeves. But while Reeves has mentioned South by Southwest as a potential model, City Manager Robert W. Healy suggested Cambridge grow its annual Science Festival into something more glamorous and multifaceted. “The Cambridge Science Festival already attracts people from around the world,” Healy said. “If we can add something to it, maybe a music component, or something else, we have an opportunity to really make this a huge event.”

Cambridge’s calendar, of course, is already packed with events ripe for development or combination. In addition to an annual science festival, the city hosts the Ig Nobel Prizes, which draws international attention — in fact, so far more attention from overseas than in the United States, according to founder Marc Abrahams. The Boston Underground Film Festival takes place almost entirely in Cambridge, which has a wealth of top-notch cinemas including Kendall Square, the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive in addition to the multiscreen complexes in Harvard Square and at Fresh Pond. And the Women in Comedy Festival and Geek Week, which center around ImprovBoston in Central Square, draw participants from around the country. This year, Geek Week’s music and comedy overlapped with the Internet culture conference, ROFLCon. And last month saw a daylong TEDx conference about food, an independent offshoot of the international TED events begun in 1984.

An Ig Nobel Prize winner gives a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge has several events that could be developed or combined into a signature event called for by a consultant for the Kendall Square Association. (Photo: Jeff Dlouhy)

Among live music, food, comedy, cinema and science and technology, the city has a wealth of options. The presentation looked not just at South by Southwest — which brought to Austin some 210,000 people and $100 million in revenue last year — but at the fashion scene in Paris, film community in Hollywood and the financial sphere of Wall Street. In addition to signature events, each sprang from three to five large-scale organizations, the drive of a few “spirited, pioneering individuals” and “the ability to remain relevant.”

The officials also heard presentations from Rowe, who runs the Cambridge Innovation Center and is seeking additional space for a Venture Café meeting space for the square; Michael Cantalupa of the developer Boston Properties, which built and maintains the square’s 24-acre Cambridge Center complex of office buildings, hotels, retail and garages; Joe Maguire, of Alexandria Real Estate, set for huge expansion in the area; and Steve Marsh of MITIMCo. Each discussed what their businesses could do to help residential and retail growth. Healy and Economic Development staffer Estella Johnson provided insight on the city’s plans for infrastructure development. Also in attendance were Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President Terrence Smith, the Community Development Department’s Beth Rubenstein, Jesse BaerKahn of Twinnings Properties and several other members of the Cambridge business community.

“I feel like this hearing was an important first step,” Cheung said. “It brought together for the first time the big power players in the area — the real estate owners, the businesses and the city — and forced them to sit down and develop a way forward. If we can get everyone to sing from the same sheet of music, than we’ve really accomplished something.”

“Ranch Kimball kept referring to Kendall Square as a beacon for the rest of the tech world, and I think we are well on our way to accomplishing that,” Cheung said. “We just need to invest more in the neighborhood’s long-term development to finally realize the promise of a modern community envisioned 30 years ago.”

The committee will continue hosting regular hearings on Kendall Square to bring more coordination and focus to development in the area, Cheung said.

This post includes much information from a press release issued by Cheung.