Silicon suburbs? Newton and Needham make bid for tech hub | Crain's Boston

Silicon suburbs? Newton and Needham make bid for tech hub

  • Aerial photo of a portion of the N-Squared Innovation District, an area of about 500 acers along the Newton-Needham line on I-95 that is home to a growing number of innovation economy companies. | Photo courtesy of the Bulfinch Companies.

    Aerial photo of a portion of the N-Squared Innovation District, an area of about 500 acers along the Newton-Needham line on I-95 that is home to a growing number of innovation economy companies. | Photo courtesy of the Bulfinch Companies.

  • An artist's rendering of a 390-unit apartment complex being built by Normandy Real Estate Partners as part of its Center 128 project in the N-Squared Innovation District. | Photo courtesy of Normandy.

    An artist's rendering of a 390-unit apartment complex being built by Normandy Real Estate Partners as part of its Center 128 project in the N-Squared Innovation District. | Photo courtesy of Normandy.

  • TripAdvisor’s new world headquarters along I-95 on the N-Squared Innovation District opened in 2015. | Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

    TripAdvisor’s new world headquarters along I-95 on the N-Squared Innovation District opened in 2015. | Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

  • The Charles River Landing apartment complex, located in the Needham Crossing section of the N-Squared Innovation District, includes both luxury and affordable rental units. | Photo courtesy of Charles River Landing

    The Charles River Landing apartment complex, located in the Needham Crossing section of the N-Squared Innovation District, includes both luxury and affordable rental units. | Photo courtesy of Charles River Landing

The so-called innovation economy may be most visible in humming urban pockets like Kendall Square and the Seaport District, but the western suburbs are getting in the game, too.

Newton and Needham already count TripAdvisor among the buzzworthy businesses that have set up shop there, opting for a suburban office park off Route 128 over another gleaming high-rise downtown. Now the two towns are hoping to build on that momentum by rebranding their stretch of I-95 as the N2 Innovation District (pronounced “N-squared”).

Suburban office parks are nothing new, of course. But business leaders and local officials say the N2 District will replace the traditional drive-in, drive-out mentality of the suburbs with a thriving community. To do that they’re trying to liven up the area with new housing, restaurants and shops—a development cocktail that could entice another commercial powerhouse like TripAdvisor to settle down there.

“What we're seeing is when companies grow from that startup phase and they want to expand, they need somewhere to go,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. “They can't necessarily afford that space in the urban core. And we're seeing the inner suburbs as a good, logical location for those companies when they grow.”

Reibman says the support staff of a growing company—lawyers, human resources teams, salesforce—might already be living in the suburbs, raising families, so part of the N2 group’s pitch is housing. There are roughly 1,000 units under construction within the 500-acre area the comprises the corridor, according to Reibman. They’re working with officials in Needham and Newton to loosen zoning restrictions on high-density housing.

Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation opened a new exit off Route 128, part of a $315 million, long-awaited highway widening project. Reibman said that should put Needham and Newton on the map for companies already considering an expansion outside of downtown Boston.

Still, the suburban initiative’s biggest challenge may still be transportation.

“Like everyone else in eastern Massachusetts, we wish the MBTA could expand,” said Reibman, “but that's not going to happen anytime soon.”

In the meantime they’re playing up the commuter rail connection in Needham, and looking to grow company-led initiatives like bike-sharing, car-pooling and shuttle buses.

Building an innovation oasis in the suburbs may be an uphill battle with Boston and Cambridge so close. But for businesspeople like Dan Goodman, there are advantages to getting out of town. He’s lived in Needham for nine years, and said it’s a great place to raise kids.

His company, Building 36 Technologies, opened a new office in Needham last year. They make sensors for homeowners who want to monitor and control their utilities and other building systems over the internet. It’s an easier commute for him and his colleagues, but he hopes the N2 District succeeds in livening up the sometimes sleepy suburbs.

“What I'd like to see is a community feel,” said Goodman. “Even though we're not all working at the same company, you can go out and meet people and get fresh ideas from people, just having a shared community that we can all leverage and grow from.”

Building 36 Technologies is small, so they didn’t need a sprawling suburban office park. Needham offered more modest floor plans, akin to an urban incubator space, which Goodman said helped the company grow close to where its employees live. It’s a good selling point, but it remains to be seen whether the N2 District initiative at large can strike the same balance: marrying the creative energy of tech-savvy Boston with the quaint comforts of its suburbs.

September 8, 2016 - 2:30pm