How Newton and Needham are aiming to attract innovative companies
Boston Business Journal
September 2, 2016
by Catherine Carlock, Real Estate Editor
By the end of 2015, vacuum cleaner and kitchen appliance company SharkNinja hit $1.7 billion in sales, had entered the coffee market and had spread out to four separate buildings in Newton and Needham — and it needed to grow further still.
Sheri Zee, SharkNinja’s senior vice president of human resources and corporate services, led the charge for the company’s move. SharkNinja considered relocating to Waltham or Westwood, Zee said, but chose to stay in Needham to be mindful of its existing employee base — and to have a new building that would be attractive to future workers.
“We wanted to keep the commute relatively neutral in order to maximize our ability to retain our existing top talent and also attract a new associate base to a convenient location,” Zee said.
That’s music to Greg Reibman’s ears.
Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, recently chaired a task force dubbed the N 2(pronounced “N-Squared”) Innovation Corridor Economic Development and Marketing Strategy. The group studied the opportunity for a 500-acre area along Interstate 95/Route 128 to become “more than just a redeveloped office park or a series of business properties,” but instead, “an innovation district where talent, innovation and community converge to support a vibrant, entrepreneurial economy, a model for the integration of economic development, placemaking and social networks.”
The No. 1 goal of the area Reibman now calls the N 2 Innovation District? Attract and retain innovative and growing companies in priority industries, such as technology. Other goals include creating a mixed-use community with infrastructure and amenities such as offices and retail.
That’s where developers such as Normandy Real Estate Partners come in. Normandy last year developed a swanky headquarters for TripAdvisor at the edge of its 13-acre Needham office park. The developer spent another $54.5 million in December 2014 to acquire an adjacent 28 acres that had been home to a unit of defense contractor General Dynamics, which recently moved to Dedham. Normandy is building out the broad swath of single- and two-story office space into a mixed-use campus with office, residential, a 9.5-acre “green spine” and plenty of parking.
An 89,000-square-foot Marriott Residence Inn is already built out, and crews are working on an 180,000-square-foot headquarters for SharkNinja. At full buildout, the campus is slated to include a total of 703,000 square feet of office space — some of which Normandy could develop on a speculative basis, said Jamie Nicholson, a senior vice president with Normandy, during a recent tour of the campus.
Normandy’s plan to transform the former General Dynamics site was attractive to SharkNinja because of the property’s future amenity base, including apartments, dining options, a fitness center and game room, Zee said.
The facility will house SharkNinja’s 375 employees under one roof, rather than four, and provide room for at least 275 more people. With more than 75 open positions in Massachusetts alone, SharkNinja has been on a “hiring spree,” Zee said.
“With our rapidly growing size, it was one of the few buildings in the region that could comfortably house our Massachusetts-based workforce,” Zee said. “We also wanted to relocate nearby in an effort to maintain our regional roots and ensure our current associates could easily commute to a new headquarters conveniently located off the I-95 corridor.”
There are additional road improvements coming that Reibman, Nicholson and others in Newton-Needham’s real estate industry (including brokers Boston Realty Advisors and Cushman and Wakefield) highlight as attractive to future tenants. Just last month, a new Kendrick Street interchange opened off Interstate 95 in Needham. And the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization has approved $14 million in federal highway dollars to improve a two-mile stretch of the Needham Street/Highland Avenue corridor beginning in 2018, while a $3.3 million MassWorks grant is targeting that same stretch beginning in 2017.
There are, of course, challenges to developing out the N 2 Innovation District. The study, which came out in June, reports a “small number of younger workers” and also says “local priority industry companies report difficulties recruiting these workers” to the district. As such, “it is essential to create the community that responds to the emerging desire to live, work and play in the same place.”
But proponents say the opportunity is there, especially with road improvements coming down the pike and an acknowledged goal to foster homegrown innovative companies that employ a thriving workforce.
“This is something that will help this particular corridor continue to grow, not just in business development, but also in terms of residential growth as well,” said Peter Standish, senior vice president of development and commercial for Northland Investment Corp., which owns some 30 acres of commercial property in Newton. “There’s a link there, and I think part of that is creating this live-work-play community, where it spawns creative thinking and entrepreneurial activity. Living in a shared community, with shared amenities, very similar to what you would see in the (South Boston) Seaport area … you do have that opportunity here.”
And as more and more longtime suburban companies seek out an urbanized experience, Newton and Needham have a leg up, Standish said.
“What I think Needham Street has to offer — it can be the ‘here here,’ ” he said. “It already has the elements, the roots of the retail, the commercial and the residential. And it’s got opportunity.”
Catherine Carlock covers Greater Boston’s commercial real estate industry.