Friday, May 24, 2024

A Boston Globe illustration shows the size and some features proposed for housing being built in Boston’s Innovation District. (Image: The Boston Globe)

Boston may be getting innovation housing first, but an assortment of players in Cambridge are convinced Kendall Square can do it right.

The tiny apartments — mainly bedrooms around grander common space — are being built in Boston’s Innovation District, where young workers with erratic hours, no family and few demands on their housing are meant to stumble into or out of beds at odd hours after long bouts at the whiteboard. But the excitement that greeted the district’s four innovation housing projects with hundreds of units died down as the price for a 375- to 400-square-foot unit was revealed: $1,500 to $2,000 per month.

As Curbed and The Boston Globe noted, that’s a lot of money for not much space. Curbed asked, “Will Manhattan Rents Fly in South Boston?” and the Globe added heft to the question by noting survey results from the Cambridge Innovation Center saying “respondents — mostly twentysomethings who work in the tech and start-up industries — said they would only be willing to pay, on average, around $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, for innovative housing. That’s $6,000 less per year than developers are hoping they will pay.”

The launch point for innovation housing in Cambridge looks to be in a tower the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants to build by Broad Canal, part of a 36-acre development remaking Broadway, the canal and Point Park and improving access to the river and Infinite Corridor (albeit one taking place within a roughly 95-acre footprint with the canal and the institute’s Eastman Court as its poles). An institute team made innovation housing part of a presentation made late last month to the East Cambridge Planning Team, and the president of that group, Barbara Broussard, said “we’re trying to convince MIT to really seriously consider that proposal.”

The institute can’t act alone on the canal, though. It doesn’t own the land.

Several floors, a few hundred units

Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, said last month he’d like to see “several floors” of innovation housing in Kendall, and others’ prescriptions for the area are similarly broad.

“There’s no percentage yet. Right now we’re just trying to get housing, period, but I think we’re talking about a few hundred units at least to make a dent, and these are pretty dense,” said Leland Cheung, a city councillor with close ties to city’s academic and entrepreneurial camps. “MIT should house its community members, but that’s different than the innovation housing we’re talking about … In talking with MIT I’ve been pushing them on housing, both primarily for postdocs, researchers and other MIT affiliates who spend all their days at labs at MIT but commute in from the suburbs, and additionally talking about innovation housing for recent students, recent graduates or for entrepreneurs. Tom O’Brien of HYM has talked about doing it at NorthPoint as well, which would be really exciting.”

In this image from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology presentation, housing — including innovation housing — could be built by Broad Canal, seen in the lower right.

Supporters say the advantages are clear, especially for Kendall and the NorthPoint neighborhood, which is being built essentially from the ground up. The private spaces would be 300 square feet or smaller, possibly with a bathroom and no kitchen or with a kitchenette good enough for, say, scrambled eggs; but then there would be access to a grand common space, including a big kitchen. “The most interesting thing would be some clusters of three- to four-bedroom shared units with the bathroom and kitchen shared within, but tiny ones still, for a really low cost — but then I’d have an Olympic-sized pool,” Rowe said. “The shared stuff is really cheap when you share it over a whole building of units.”

What frustrates Rowe is the idea that small units might be rejected as inhumane (a charge brought up when the concept was brought before the Boston Redevelopment Authority) when whole societies, including very advanced societies, live well in compact spaces. Living small was a lesson imprinted on Rowe during his first job in Tokyo, where corporate housing put him happily in a space of less than 200 square feet, he said. As described, it makes sense especially in an area as compact as Kendall Square and the city as a whole, where housing costs remained high even as the rest of the country suffered through a recession.

“Physically smaller spaces are obviously much cheaper to heat and cool, and the overall cost of an apartment is almost linearly related to its size. The cost of construction is related to its area, the cost of the land, everything is. If you can make it smaller, you can make it cheaper,” he said. “You know what it is? It’s affordable housing without it requiring any subsidy. What affordable housing has been is to build really big, expensive, energy-inefficient housing and then subsidizing it, which gets government involved in both ends in bad ways.”

The innovation housing market

Rowe expanded on the findings of his center’s study, which found entrepreneurs were paying about $700 monthly to live, for instance, in a third-floor walkup with no air-conditioning with other people in a house a significant distance from Davis Square. But they were willing to pay up to $1,000 for the better location and features Rowe describes as being a residential version of the CIC itself, a business incubator with small offices but well-appointed public spaces and meeting rooms. “If you could get it lower than $1,000 you’d have a bigger market. At $1, 500 you’re not talking about innovation housing, you’re talking about yuppie housing for the lawyers and accountants, and they don’t live in Cambridge anyway,” Rowe said.

Rowe, Cheung and Broussard agree on the target market for innovation housing: It’s the same people at Rowe’s CIC, whom Cheung describes as being either there for 100-hour weeks or home to crash briefly before headed back to work. Since they’re focused on their companies, he said, they don’t want a huge apartment they have to clean or worry about, and they want to minimize their costs if they’re doing a start-up. (Rowe agreed. “Expensive housing reduces diversity by virtue of it being expensive. In my world, the innovation world, it has the effect of making it very hard for people to take the kids of financial risks inherent in start-ups. Because if your housing costs a lot of money, you need a day job,” he said. “If you found a way to live cheaply, you might be more able to take the kinds of risks associated with not having an income and living on your savings.”)

But Broussard had a whole additional target market, and she’s the model. About to turn 70, she once lived in communes. Now she’s eager to live small and rid herself of the need to clean and worry about a large house.

“I want a very large bedroom, my own bathroom and everything else can be shared. I don’t need to own it, I don’t need to clean it, I just have to pick up after myself. I don’t need to garden. I don’t need the back porch. I like shared space and I like having people around, so innovation housing works for me,” Broussard said, “How about 12 by 14? I can put my sewing machine in there, have one bedroom, a little sitting couch, whatever, that’s all I need at 70. I’ve had it with the crap. That’s where I’m at.”

Innovations and accommodations

There’s enthusiasm and a willingness to explore the idea, but none of the proponents could name a specific model to follow — which could be key to adding it to Kendall Square zoning or including it in NorthPoint after the stumble in Boston. “I imagine any developer interested in this will be doing the market research,” Cheung said.

Even though Rowe acknowledged that innovation housing “tends to get a lot of pushback at the regulatory level because it’s new,” all rejected the notion there were lessons in the city’s recent battles over other housing that pushed the envelope: basement apartments sought by Chestnut Hill Realty and the multibedroom units suggested at one time for the the former North Cambridge Catholic High School on Norris Street. Limited in the number of units by zoning in a residential area, the owner once had designs for apartments with as many as eight bedrooms.

As Rowe sees it:

“Someone might say it’s a travesty you have no car and you have to bike to work when it’s cold out, by golly. It would be one thing if we couldn’t find examples of humans living happily in productive societies, but the nation of Japan lives largely in spaces such as thing and is just fine. Dorms exist in this society and they’re more dense than what I’m talking about, and we don’t seem to think that’s a travesty. Is it okay for students but not okay when you’re not a student, and why is that?”

The clever accommodations Rowe described from small apartments in Japan — in which plumbing is connected, for instance, so the water used to wash your hands becomes the water used in the next flush of the toilet — may not all be tolerated here, but he pointed to the Changing Places Lab at the MIT Media Center as doing interesting work in making small living spaces flexible. Its CityHome project can be seen at work in this video: