Groundbreaking change ahead for Lexington

by Bruce Lee

I recently attended a presentation by the Middlesex 3 Coalition on “What’s happening in
Middlesex 3” with speakers from the Town of Lexington, AHA Consulting Engineers and Maugel Architects.

This blog entry focus on the very positive change in attitude by the Town of Lexington officials towards favoring much more commercial development- especially within the Hartwell Avenue corridor.

The event was led by Stephanie Cronin – Executive Director of Middlesex 3 Coalition. Stephanie introduced James Malloy, the new Town Manager for Lexington – installed 7 months ago. Jim shared that he has 31 years of experience in town management, much of which was with the town of Westborough, MA. He started off with sharing his experience in Westborough where 52% of that town’s revenue was from the commercial tax base. He added that Lexington with most of its commercial tax base located in the Hartwell Avenue area comprises only 11% of its tax base. He wants to build on this small commercial base.

Two major issues need to be addressed to accomplish this goal 1) improve the infrastructure and 2) address the “zoning gate.” Issues to be answered include what zoning is needed to assist and promote redevelopment, and to this end, Jim and the town Economic Planning Director want to work with local property owners and their suggestions. One large issue facing increased development opportunity is the fact that currently there is only one way in and out of Hartwell Avenue to reach Route 128. Jim said the town would need help from MIT and Hanscom Field (federal government) to find a creative way to support a two-way in and out of the Hartwell Ave corridor.

Jim then introduced Melissa Tintocalis the Economic Director for the town of Lexington.
Melissa explained the town was working on a comprehensive plan or “blueprint” for increased land use development for the town – to include transportation and commercial /residential components. Commercial development within Lexington has lagged far behind its neighboring communities.

Since 2010 the commercial property base in Lexington has increased only 2% – from 8,500,000 sf to 8,800,00 sf. She stated that Waltham’s base has doubled, and Burlington has tripled. Melissa then “ran the numbers” where it was shown that all-in lease rates in Cambridge were averaging $95 sf, Waltham $56 sf, and Lexington $34 sf. Cambridge has a 2% vacancy rate and Lexington has an 11-12% vacancy rate. Obviously other factors are causing the vacancy rate to be much lower in Cambridge – but there are things that can be done to attract new companies to Lexington. This reality has led to planning for the “Hartwell Avenue Initiative” where technology and more in-fill development could be allowed – to include even re-considering height restrictions required to comply with air traffic requirements at Hanscom Field.

The goal of the Initiative would be to consider Hartwell Ave and Hartwell North, properties in Lexington north of Rt. 128, as an entire development corridor to increase its commercial attractiveness and “walkability.” Two recent examples were shown – 20 Maguire Road and 115 Hartwell Ave where food halls were incorporated into each existing project giving them more of a neighborhood feel. The new Hartwell Avenue Initiative Plan is expected to be completed in 2020 and presented to the town for approval.

Mark Pelletier of Maugel architects was then introduced and he added to the presentation by explaining the firms past rich history of supporting local development projects in this area – especially within the towns of Lexington and Burlington. He offered that many company decision makers searching for new space locations want buildings that “users want bright, vivid, sharp space and to get that ‘campus feel.’” Developers need to tie buildings together whenever possible. Also, the use of bamboo panels and living walls are examples of items being considered. He stated, “every owner wants a timeless look with a bright palette.” Also, sometimes you can accomplish this economically with panted concrete panels and lobby make-overs – examples shown on color slides included 330 Billerica Road in Chelmsford, and 75 & 17 Hartwell Avenue where large windows facing Hartwell Ave were added, and new vertical atrium entranceways were attached to increase the building’s visibility.

Pelletier also said “it is very competitive to attract and keep talented employees happy.” The space needs to be flexible and cubicles are not what new employees coming out of educational institutions are used to. There is a need for flexible space where employees working in an open, sometimes noisy, environment can go elsewhere within the space for some quiet, casual, concentrating time. “They want a campus feel with walkable amenities.”

Another “want:” key components in expanding a company’s interests is reducing the company “carbon footprint” – combined with sustainability efforts. When I asked Mark how sustainability and reducing the company carbon footprint factored in the decision to locate in a specific building he said it was a growing factor and now a part of new design projects. Mark stated, “you have to have it.” For sustainability elements, companies with genuine interest incorporate it into the design phase for three reasons 1) to show employees that the company supports these efforts 2) economics – saving money and 3) for marketing purposes. Karen Rice with AHA Engineering then made a professional presentation of the company – including its history, local and national scope, and local development projects completed.

The town of Lexington is getting serious about supporting increased commercial development to add to its tax base to help fund over $600M in projected town expenditures for projects in the planning stages – to include $350 to $500 M for a new high school and other municipal projects. This is huge change in favor of new commercial development and expanding re-development of properties in the Hartwell Avenue sector of Lexington. You can see more of the details of the Hartwell Avenue Initiative at the town’s website, courtesy Gamble Associates. It appears that the outcome will be much more favorable to commercial development in Lexington than in the past.

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