Q&A: From grocery store to Constellation Center, Travis McCready talks future of Kendall Square
The Kendall Square Association’s executive director, Travis McCready, met with Cambridge Day in late November to talk about the future of the square, with its innovation-industry offices and lab space often called the most innovative square mile in the world. The hourlong talk in a cafe at 1 Broadway, where he works alongside entrepreneurs at the Cambridge Innovation Center business incubator, showed McCready bringing to bear experience dating back to his education at Yale University and the University of Iowa; through his time as a corporate lawyer and at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, Boston Foundation and Harvard University; and into his ongoing work as a trustee of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, overseer at the Institute of Contemporary Art and director of the Boston Public Market Association. The below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Kendall Square is just starting to pop with shops and restaurants, but if I were a business owner I would be nervous about opening there when Massachusetts Institute of Technology redevelopment will soon mean months of heavy construction. Are there thoughts of how to make sure Kendall’s growth isn’t stunted by construction scaring away customers?
No one is nervous about it. For me the question that keeps me up at night is if you take a look at any district across the country — Cambridge, Berkeley, Calif., it really doesn’t matter where — and you say that you’re going to open up 16 restaurants in two years, that is really, really aggressive. Because as you know, the first six to 18 months is when these new restaurants are at their most vulnerable. So I look across the landscape and I see Voltage and Abigail’s and all these other really solid restaurants and I wonder if we’ll be able to sustain the businesses to enable these entrepreneurs to grow roots so that nothing fails. If it fails because they’re producing a crappy product, shame on them, but I don’t think any of them are. So it behooves us as a district to do what we can to support the ecosystem so they have a constant flow of business.
Now, construction, I don’t really worry about that. That’s a good thing, that’s a really good thing. More people in the neighborhood, more jobs, more people on the street, more opportunity for people to be going out to dinner afterward, hitting breakfast beforehand, you name it, construction is actually a good thing. The next stage of evolution is how you create Kendall Square as more of a destination so we’re continuing to satisfy these restaurants, not just with the homegrown people but people who are coming to the area from Boston or from Somerville or what have you. That’s the new trick. If we can do that it’s smooth sailing.
Is there a continued pipeline of new restaurants?
Beyond the 16, I know of two other restaurants, but I don’t know if it’ll be in six months, nine months or 12. That’s a new Italian restaurant in 1 Kendall I believe is going to be called Buca. And then there’s a quick-serve restaurant, a Qdoba, that Boston Properties will open at the Kendall T station. Then there’s a third player I can’t name who’s looking to open a restaurant — and if we can get him that would be great.
Has MIT promised to make sure there is good passage and way-finding for people getting off the T?
I’ve been doing this for 11 years or probably longer, and I think of that as being kind of rudimentary. They’re going to do it, they have to do it. I’ve dealt with Harvard and MIT and they do it. So that’s not even on my mind. That’s going to happen. MIT is motivated.
Do you have any sense how long that construction is going to last?
No. Naturally the phasing will depend in part on what else is in the pipeline when they get approval. If they get approval at the same time Alexandria real estate has something approved and they’re going after the same tenant base, they’re going to look at that and shift their phasing. You want to reduce the amount of time that you have a built product without any occupancy. And everyone has their pound of flesh to extract from MIT, so who knows whether they’ll be able to file again tomorrow or in six months. It’s my hope that they get a chance to file as soon as possible, because it really could be an extraordinary project.
Is there anything so essential to a project coming to Kendall that not seeing it in a proposal would be a deal-breaker for you?
Fortunately, everyone is on the same page about what the deal-breaker is, and that is the ground floor. Some people call it community space, some call it shared space, some call it retail space, people use all sorts of terminology, but in their minds they all mean the same thing, which is that ground floor uses should be such that you have the ability to congregate, mix, mingle, meet in a nonproprietary fashion. You should have the ability to come and go, there should be something extraordinary about the space in terms of either technology or a landmark, some kind of use that’s iconic and reflective of Kendall Square. If MIT would come forward to propose, which they haven’t, that the ground floor look like 53 State St. or one of those office buildings in Boston’s Financial District which is just a massive lobby — dead project. That’s the fastest way to kill that project. We’re all smarter now and know that what this area really needs is a level of ground floor vitality and the ability to mix, mingle, bump and connect, whether it’s over a coffee or a good espresso or a Holyoke Center type of pass-through atmosphere.
The culture of Kendall
In every discussion about what makes a neighborhood, people want a grocery store. For Kendall, there’s so much talk about bringing in residential space, but beyond city councillor Leland Cheung, no official enthusiasm for a full-fledged grocery store to serve residents. What are your thoughts on its importance?
Since I’m a former lawyer I’m going to split a hair here and first say what I mean by grocery store: I don’t mean that thing they have in Harvard Square. That’s more of a quick-serve type of a specialty market. When I think grocery store I think of something like Trader Joe’s or Evergood Market on Mass. Ave. or Fresh Pond Market on Huron Avenue, a business model that has made its reputation and its connection with the community not on an extraordinary offering in variety but on an extraordinary ability to provide what the community wants in a smaller format, at the right price point based on the amount of available space. You’re not going to be able to go there and buy six kinds of olive tapenade, but you’ll get one great, local variety tapenade. And a great selection of six local beers, not 36. I think the property owners would agree that that kind of market is something that would be very helpful to have in Kendall. I don’t think anyone is interested in a Shaw’s, a Star Market, a big box. There’s no use for one.
Is focusing on more of a Trader Joe’s than, say, a Market Basket part of a branding for Kendall?
One of the great things about Kendall Square that’s emerging right now is that all of these restaurants that have opened, except one, are local entrepreneurs. There’s only one chain, and that is Champions. It’s a cultural phenomenon we should be proud of, and that is kind of thing that I would like to see extended to a market, a pharmacy, or anything else that opens up here in Kendall and part of the reason why I feel like there’s no need for a Shaw’s or Star Market. One, the residential demand doesn’t exist. Secondly, culturally, it’s completely opposite to what we have going on down here.
That seems to implicitly cap the amount of residential space that will be available.
People should be very careful with their expectations for the amount of residential space that you’re going to be able to have down here in Kendall Square, because I think there will be a natural cap. There’s an equilibrium to how it evolves, and you don’t want to cut the legs out from underneath the district by favoring too much residential in place of business and commercial use. People talk about there being a thousand units of housing in Kendall Square, built it now, build it now, but it’s unreasonable to build thousands of units right now. Not everyone would agree with my numbers, but everyone would agree in principle that Kendall Square is not a residential district, it’s a mixed-use district. The two philosophies would yield drastically different results, and what I’m very cautious of is no matter how much housing you build, there’ll never be enough. But no one disagrees that it would be great to have more housing where you’re down the elevator at your home, you’re walking past the farmers market and you have an a-ha moment and you’re at your office 30 seconds later.
Some might worry Kendall will be reserved for well-paid people in innovation industries while, for instance, all the affordable housing goes in East Cambridge. Are all parts of the city for everyone?
I think there is an implicit understanding that there are five squares in Cambridge and each one is distinct. There’s an implicit understanding that we do death to a square by trying to transform it into one’s interpretation of another square. You kill Kendall by trying to transform it into Harvard Square. You kill Harvard by trying to transform it into Porter. There’s an understanding that each square has to have its own character. And you have to have a different formula for this live-work-play dynamic. Which is really what we’re after.
You talked about Kendall Square being a destination. Starting several years ago, Glenn KnicKrehm’s Constellation Center was supposed to be part of that.
This is the third conversation about the Constellation Center that I’ve had today. I’m so hopeful for Glenn and the center, and I wish him all the best and I’ll give him all the support possible. But I think that right now the community and everyone is waiting for some sign that the project is real. He’s done incredible amounts of work and stuck to his guns about designing the building from the inside out. I give him credit for being sort of an iconoclast about how that building gets built, but I also would be lying if I didn’t say that virtually every community or representative from every walk of life that I encounter is waiting for some sign that that project will get built. We meet every quarter or every few months, and I hear “This will be the perfect venue. I can’t tell you if it will be six stories high or four stories high, but I’m going to take the time to design the perfect venue.” That’s a much different conversation than people are used to dealing with. Even MIT came forward and said, “Okay, we’re going to build this at this size” and all that stuff. Glenn has stuck to his guns and has been having a conversation for nine years about the ethereal experience you will have when you’re in this venue and in this building.
So your understanding is that this is a perfectionist obsessing over design for nine years, not that there’s a funding issue?
I think the two are connected. I think Glenn is obsessing over design, and I think he wouldn’t disagree with that. Based on having done projects like this before in nonprofit settings, I can tell you that he’s probably having some difficulty raising the large-scale capital contributions that he needs to complete the project. But I think that once Glenn decides that the project is designed and meets his specs, once he gets going on having a different conversation with the funding community, this project could really be a home run.
What’s going on here that warrants more attention?
Two things: One is the former Edward J. Sullivan courthouse building at 40 Thorndike St. — 22 stories, 600,000 square feet of space, right at the center of East Cambridge, North Point and the heart of Kendall Square. It’s a complicated project, a complicated asset, but that’s a great location, a great potential project, and it’s really an opportunity for the state and the city to do something incredibly interesting. It’s two blocks from Cambridgeside Galleria, two or three blocks from Alexandria Real Estate’s 1.7 million square feet along Binney Street, a seven-minute walk to the North Point green line stop, nine minutes to the heart of Kendall, you couldn’t script it any better. The only thing is the asbestos.
What’s your vision for it?
Mixed use. A layered mixed use. Just like a good flaky crust. The first couple floors would be some sort of community use, whether it’s a farmers market or it’s a meeting space for community groups or something like that. The next couple of layers would be incubator space like the Cambridge Innovation Center. The top few layers would be, I guess the term is, innovation housing. More housing for the graduate student who’s making only $40,000 a year or $50,000. It’s living here with a family and two young kids. That kind of thing, and do it in an interesting format between a condo and a dorm.
What’s the second thing?
The second is more philosophy than anything else and goes back to the question of equilibrium. What I love about working down here in Kendall is that everyone seems to be philosophically aligned on the ingredients of success. One of the thing we talked about was the retail element. The other thing people always talk about are the brand names — Pfizer, Google, Microsoft, Nokia — those brand names and how attractive it is to have those names down here. I think the messy middle that drives the brand names is entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship and maintaining enough space for them to want to be here, because you want them here. So that balance between Pfizer taking 180,000 square feet of space versus 18,000 entrepreneurs taking 10,000 apiece is the balance this community has to continue to be able to broker. That’s really critical.
Do you think the balance is right?
I think right now it’s good. We have, besides the CIC, four other incubators, so incubator space continues to be a successful model. At the same time I’ve talked to a couple clean-tech companies who have decided not to stay here because some of what they need — large industrial spaces, for example — are quickly disappearing.
Where are we with the regionalization efforts Chung led a while back? There were already regionalization skeptics on the council and of course immediately after we opened ourselves up Boston seemed to act behind our backs to steal away biotech companies.
Leland’s effort was a good first attempt at regionalization just to establish that we can perhaps have relationships. The discussions that are under way are a little more nuanced: “Let’s collaborate on these items which are important to all of us and are about all our survival.” Transportation and transportation finance reform. Doesn’t matter if you’re Longwood, the Waterfront or Kendall Square, if our public transportation system is underfunded, run-down, broken, what have you, all three of those districts will fail.
For me, part of understanding the regionalization question is getting comfortable with who we are. The great thing is there are more people who want to be here than there is supply. Demand is far exceeding supply. Go back 30 years to when Cambridge Center was under development and Boston Properties will tell you that was not the case. Thirty years ago we were in the position that South Boston’s Waterfront is in now, which is that you have much more space than demand. They have to be really aggressive in terms of their marketing and price point to be able to get folks to occupy that real estate. They’re kicking our ass, there’s no way around it. They’ve got staff, money and they have money and they have money and they’re being really aggressive about wining and dining and flying all over the country and taking a look at different models in California or Research Triangle Park or Austin or what have you. “Gee whiz, I think on the South Boston Waterfront we should have a really edgy ice cream shop.” “I heard of one in Berkeley, let’s go fly out and take a look at it.” That’s the type of thing they do. Can you imagine the city manger authorizing that? That’s what they’re doing, and again I give them credit. But at the end of the day the business fundamentals are if you can get into Kendall, that’s where you want to be. If you can get into Harvard or Yale, why settle for Siena? Nothing against Siena, but if you can get into Harvard or Yale that’s where you want to be.
Speaking of public transportation, the state must have known it was ludicrous to pitch a Grand Junction commuter rail line to run through Cambridge without actually stopping in the city.
I think that the planners always knew they would have to stop in Cambridge somewhere, whether on Mass. Ave., closer to MIT or down here on Main Street, closer to Galileo Way. There were a gazillion ideas that hadn’t been fleshed out.