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The Battle of Kendall Square
The Battle of Kendall Square
Four Articles in the Boston Globe Reveal Competing Development Interests
Four recent articles in the Boston Globe have offered evidence that pitched battles between spin-doctors are spreading to Kendall Square. The past decade has seen a revolution in the human face of Kendall Square. The city hired a consultant to come in to spice up the area …. to make it more lively …. to provide retail activity with shops and restaurants … and to become a hotbed for new startup firms and a symbol of development success.
The latest volley in the Kendall Square war came from reporter Robert Weisman writing a long front-page article for the Tuesday May 19 Globe. On the theme of "As Tech Hub Grows, so do the Traffic Jams," the article was a surprisingly pointed piece critical of the transportation problems at Kendall. Weisman claimed that "the whiz kids at Kendall Square are aiming” at "figuring out how to get it to work." Reference is made to "some of the state's worst traffic" and "multiple bottlenecks," with "backed up exit ramps funneling cars off major highways." Weisman claimed these problems are "choking the dynamic business center."
The article said Kendall is a victim of its own success, expanding more than 1.6 million s.f. of new office and lab space while adding more than 5,000 jobs over the past five years. Plans call for six million square feet of new development in the coming years. It refers to the "new urgency in recent months" and mentions “winter snowstorms that further aggravated traffic." The article uses criticism of local problems by Kendall Square businessmen to deplore the Kendall transportation situation.
The formation of a group to study improvements in mobility at Kendall Square is presented as an admission of major problems. With the creation of a Kendall Square Mobility Task Force, "None of the ideas under consideration -- more buses, more reliance on bicycle commuting -- appear to be major bullets to solve the problem." He cited large development plans by MIT and at the Volpe Center. He quoted state officials that no public rail expansion is planned for the next five years.
The timing of the article coincides with a major reconstruction of Main Street which passes through the Kendall Square area. The construction work has caused disruption of bus routes and bicycle movements, as well as some restrictions to pedestrians. But these problems are temporary and should be over on a few weeks.
Three days later, in the May 20 Globe, the Real Estate section led off with a headline : "White-hot Watertown." The article by Don Adams concentrated on the old Watertown Arsenal site, close to the Mt. Auburn Cemetery and the Coolidge Hill area of Cambridge. Immediate comparisons with Kendall Square were positive about its "proximity to world-class universities, access to public transit, housing and nightlife." Kendall "is seen as the gold standard for Boston-area companies seeking office space."
But the pro-Watertown article claimed that local rents would be only half those of Kendall Square, which was seen as "crowded and pricey.” The Adams article is quite the opposite of Weisman – its local development advocacy is heavily adulatory and upbeat. It deals with prospects, names and money, not with square footage and traffic. Watertown would have Kendall-like features such as "a theater, outdoor meeting spaces, a museum, parks, a beer garden, a farmers market, restaurants, a startup accelerator." Adams admits that the low rent plan "is an acknowledgment the area lacks a subway line or a nearby highway and that construction has yet to begin on most of the expected improvements." He does admit that residents have raised concerns about traffic and "other symptoms of increased density.”
Cambridge interests counterattacked in the Sunday May 24 Globe with several letters to the editor. Joe Barr, Cambridge director of transportation, defended the overall planning efforts to provide access "recognizing that we cannot build our way out of congestion." He urged "regional investment in sustainable transportation." He notes that 53% of commuting trips are made by walking, cycling and transit, without also mentioning that 47% of the trips are still made by automobile. He described Kendall Square as "a work in progress," and stated that Cambridge remains "committed to working collaboratively to enable the continued success of this global center for innovation."
Another letter to the editor on May 24 came from Jim Gascoigne, Executive Director of the Charles River Transportation Management Association. He claimed that "the innovation economy is successful in handling excess capacity, with Red Line modernization, bus priority and bike lanes." He observed that "there is plenty of room on our roads" but not enough for everyone to drive alone.
The May 22 Globe financial pages included a Scott Kirsner article under "innovation economy" with the headline : “What’s next for Kendall Square after its amazing 5-year run?” He listed the new developments at Kendall since 2010, including Oracle, Disney Research, Amazon, Facebook, Apple. Samsung, Twitter, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, and Google. The story emphasized moving in, square footages and jobs. There is not a word about traffic or transportation.
On Sunday May 24, the financial pages carried the same Kirsner story again, with changes for one or two typos and a few capitalized words. The story carried a different headline : "Kendall Square's dizzying run will usher in hefty challenges." It did not mention traffic congestion as one of those challenges.
All four articles had little to say about mass transit, and nothing about the popular buzz-word "Transit Oriented Development." None of them mentioned the possibilities for improved Red Line service to increase capacity and service reliability. One goal could be to keep all trains evenly spaced and on-time – so that trains have regular headways and carry more riders, at minimal additional expense. Recent MBTA difficulties have left the Red Line operating at significantly below potential capacity due to inefficient operations, with some trains crowded to crush capacity, while other trains are nearly empty.
The Kendall Square team has the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, Boston Properties, MIT and the Volpe Transportation Center all looking at improvements to transit operations. Watertown has two T bus lines, Routes 70 and 70A, coming out of Central Square in Cambridge.
Now the speculation begins. Who arranged for these four Globe articles -- one knocking Kendall Square, another glorifying Watertown, and the two Kirsner columns boosting Kendall Square – all coming in such a close sequence? Were the first two part of a larger lobbying strategy to try to shift prospective Kendall tenants away to Watertown? From the letters written in response, Cambridge felt they were under a concerted attack, and a response was needed. Printing the Kirsner piece on two separate days, with different headlines and photos is most puzzling.
Both Weisman and Kirsner are business reporters for the Globe. Business journals such as Banker and Tradesman have explicit journalistic codes of ethics, to prevent any of their reporters from coming under the influence of outside business interests. The Boston Globe might consider investigating the strength of its own codes of ethics and the maintenance of true independence of its reporters. The war need not go on, at least in the pages of newspapers.
Kirsner : “Let me describe a job that you should never take. A city hires you as its economic development chief. The City Council wants you to persuade 15 or so publicly-traded, brand-name companies to set up shop and start hiring thousands of people. Best would …”
Boston Globe May 24 Page 45 “Kendall Square’s dizzying run will usher in hefty challenges
Challenges sure to follow Kendall Square’s dizzying surge”
Kirsner : “LET ME DESCRIBE a job that you should never take. A city hires you as its economic development chief. The City Council wants you to persuade 15 or so publicly traded brand-name companies to set up shop and start hiring thousands of people. Best would... "