Four years ago, the city of Newton, town of Needham and the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber tried something different. Inspired by the explosion of innovative new companies coming out of Kendall Square and the Seaport, we declared two-square miles of office parks and retail corridors near the Charles River and I-95, as the “N-Squared Innovation District.“
Our objective was to establish our own innovation-driven ecosystem. We hoped to attract technology, life sciences, media and other businesses to the area. And we wanted to bring new high-paying jobs and new commercial tax dollars to Newton and Needham.
In creating a suburban innovation district, we found had many things going for us: Newton and Needham are home to many of the people who drive innovation in Greater Boston. And a handful of trend setting new companies — including TripAdvisor, SharkNinja, Karyopharm, Big Belly Solar — had chosen to call N-Squared home too.
But we also lacked elements experts told us we needed to create a truly vibrant innovation district, most notably places for employees to live, gather and play before and after work.
It happens that Northland Development Corp.’s proposal for 23 acres on Needham Street provides much of what we’re missing.
Northland’s project effectively creates a gateway to N-Squared: 800 units of units of desperately-needed housing for our local workforce; public gathering spaces; and 180,000 square feet of office space for small and mid-sized companies. On top of that, it funds shuttle buses that connect N-Squared to local transit.
It is precisely these features — and the density that comes with them — that we need to grow our economy and commercial tax base in both municipalities.
A consulting team we hired to devise our economic development strategy confirmed what we suspected: In 2015, Newton residents produced patents — a core measure of innovation — at the staggering rate of almost nine times the national average. Many of Greater Boston’s top investors and venture capitalists live here too. Adding to our innovation street cred is the fact that more than one-fifth of our local population is foreign-born and our adults are far more educated than the typical Bostonian.
On the other hand, our consultants warned, N-Squared lacked the physical infrastructure to really take off.
Innovation happens in the space between work and home, whether that’s in a beer garden, park or coffee bar. Office parks and parking garages don’t do that. Once employees leave work for home, they don’t venture back here. In response, we’ve focused on bringing life closer to the workplace with block parties, food trucks, meetups and art installations. These work to a degree, but they still require a physical place in which to gather. And N-Squared has always lacked that central place.
Northland proposal includes a central common where hundreds of people can gather, as well as a transportation hub, walkable streets, a dog park, skating rink and retail frontage — all essential ingredients needed to make an innovation community feel at home.