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Once Overlooked, Boston's South End Pushing For An Innovation Hub Future

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Every Boston neighborhood may want to be the next hot life science or technology cluster, but one neighborhood has pole position in that race, using tools that have been in its backyard for decades.

Once Overlooked, Boston's South End Pushing For An Innovation Hub Future
Historically, the South End has been known for its Victorian brownstones and leafy streets like Union Park

Boston’s South End is wedged between Back Bay and South Boston. The neighborhood has been known more for its hefty home prices and hot restaurants than for its commercial real estate activity. But having Boston Medical Center, already the region's busiest trauma center and a growing research campus, is helping to attract commercial developers.

National Development, CIM Group and The Abbey Group, among others, are in various stages of development with South End projects that will bring Boston’s skyline down Harrison and Albany streets.

“What we’ve learned from a life science perspective is companies and researchers like to be in an environment where there is a lot of intellectual capital and a vibrant community focused on innovation,” The Abbey Group Managing Partner Audrey Epstein Reny said. “The [South End] is a really vibrant life science community that has sort of been overshadowed by MIT and Harvard across the way.”

The Boston Medical campus includes Boston University School of Medicine, a leading recipient of National Institutes of Health funding. There is $320M in annual research funding across the campus, which is home to 217 principal researchers and 557 research projects currently underway. 

The medical school is also a leader in biomedical research at places like its National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, one of 11 Biosafety Level 4 labs in North America.

Once Overlooked, Boston's South End Pushing For An Innovation Hub Future
Rendering of Exchange South End

“We believe it’s a huge asset,” Reny said. “There are a lot of exciting innovations taking place over there, and we hope to build on the exciting infrastructure they have going on.”

The Abbey Group’s Exchange South End would replace the old Boston Flower Exchange on Albany Street with 1.6M SF of office and lab space spread across four buildings, beginning with an initial phase expected to break ground this summer. While much of Greater Boston’s life science activity is focused on Kendall Square and the perimeter of the Seaport, Reny said the South End corridor is a logical next step given its medical assets combined with the nearby shopping and dining destinations.

GTI Properties owns several loft buildings around Harrison Avenue in the South End’s SoWa arts and design district. The developer recently selected the office leasing team at Boston Realty Advisors to market available space it owns at 560 and 580 Harrison Ave. 

The GTI portfolio already counts companies like Shawmut Design and Construction and Machado Silvetti Architects as tenants, and Boston Realty Advisors Managing Director Peter Bean expects the properties to garner interest from technology, advertising, media and information companies priced out of loft-style offices in Fort Point.

“Long gone are the days when you could hop across Fort Point Channel and pick up 10K SF and it only cost in the $20s per SF,” he said.

Once Overlooked, Boston's South End Pushing For An Innovation Hub Future
Boston Medical Center's Moakley Building

While Fort Point office rents are in the high $50s per SF, Bean said the GTI portfolio is renting in the mid-to-high $30s. Reny said she expects Exchange South End to ask for lower rents than comparable projects in Kendall Square and the Seaport. 

The combination of the South End and the burgeoning Newmarket life science corridor is the third-most-prominent center for biomedical research, after East Cambridge and the Longwood Medical Area, Perry Brokerage Director of Intelligence Brendan Carroll said. But what it has that East Cambridge and Longwood don’t is the ability to scale up. 

BioSquare in the South End has a daytime population of 150,000 people per square mile, compared to 140,000 in Kendall, according to Perry Brokerage. But just across the Massachusetts Avenue Connector from BioSquare, the density in Newmarket drops to just 10,000 people per square mile. 

“There is complementary expansion area in the Crosstown/Newmarket area next to the South End that just doesn’t exist right next to Kendall or Longwood,” Carroll said.

Once Overlooked, Boston's South End Pushing For An Innovation Hub Future
560 Harrison Ave.

As with any other neighborhood in Boston, improved transit is needed for the South End to accommodate future growth. Transportation fixes there, however, aren’t expected to require a $100M aerial gondola, which is being floated for a life science cluster planned at the Seaport’s eastern edge.

The MBTA Fairmount Line on the commuter rail network runs near the South End and into Newmarket, and Boston officials are pushing to run more frequent service. GTI’s SoWa portfolio is a 10-minute walk to the Broadway station on the MBTA Red Line and offers a shuttle service. 

Exchange South End is slightly farther from the Red Line, but also has MBTA bus service that runs in front of its site. It is also a five-minute walk from the Silver Line that runs down Washington Street, and Reny said The Abbey Group is working with the city and surrounding neighborhood on an improved transit plan. 

While cranes might be more prevalent today in the Seaport, Reny thinks the South End’s competitive advantage as a life science cluster is its foundation as an amenity-rich neighborhood with a variety of housing stock, entertainment options and restaurants. 

“It’s a real neighborhood, not one being created to satisfy the needs of companies coming in,” she said.