In General, Kendall Square, Retail Thoughts on May 10, 2010 at 6:19 am

Last week I went to the City of Cambridge Planning Board meeting to give testimony re: Twining Properties’ commitment to retail in Kendall Square. I was asked to speak by the East Cambridge Planning Team, a community organization that is extremely active in East Cambridge. They are an impressive group and have been tremendous advocates for preserving and spurring neighborhood and community assets in light of significant real estate development (office and lab) in East Cambridge. The group’s most recent effort was opposing Equity Office’s attempts to seek approval from the City to use first floor retail space for office use in one of its building at Canal Park, which is located at the intersection of First Street and Cambridge Street in Cambridge, MA.

It was a bit awkward for me to give testimony in a matter (I didn’t support or oppose Equity’s petition) that pits a real estate developer/landlord and a community group. Equity’s position was that they made a good faith and extraordinary effort to lease the space and that it would go vacant indefinitely unless the City allowed an office use. I didn’t say it but I wholly disagree with the landlord’s position. Regardless, it’s a complicated issue and I think both sides had reasonable arguments… (read more)After speaking, I stuck around listening to the Board’s open contemplation and dialogue regarding the matter before them. It was interesting, no doubt. It turned even more interesting when on of the Board members, Thomas Anninger, said that his decision came down to “testimony given by two speakers – Joe Maguire of Alexandria and Jesse Baerkahn of Twining Properties…” Oh well, so much for a benign effect of what I said. What Mr. Anninger said was powerful. He reflected on the issue not being whether or not Equity Office made enough of an effort, but rather if Equity Office is committed to retail. In my eyes, he nailed the issue. What Joe and I said was that both Twining and Alexandria, respectively, are committed to retail in their present and future developments. What Equity said to the City is that they are not committed to retail. Right or wrong, this was the message.

Talk to anybody in real estate in Kendall Square and you’ll likely hear about “retail as an afterthought.”  I’ve wrote about this issue quite a bit over the last couple of months.  The reality is that many of the big institutional landlords are most motivated by floors two and up and, often, if it wasn’t for City requirement retail would have no place in many developments.

Retail is tough, really tough.  When I spoke at the Planning Board meeting I meant every word I said – that Twining Properties is committed to retail, believes in it and will continue to do what it takes to enliven the ground floor in buildings we own and or consult on. Our team in New York brought me and Dave in because they had worked through a list of brokers and believed a more grassroots, targeted and time-intensive approach was needed to lease the 25,000 sf in the Watermark Buiding. Our team put in big $ to close the first full service restaurant deal with a local operator in the recent history of Kendall Square.  We spent three years getting the deal done. Similarly, CityRetail is working with Alexandria Real Estate Equities on its retail in Kendall Square and, refreshingly, Alexandria has taken a similar approach – lets spend the time and money to pick the right operator and give something of value back to the neighborhood. In sum, this is what CityRetail is about – helping Landowners take the plunge and make a true commitment to retail. It’s not an easy job, but it’s fun and it’s valuable work.

As I’ve made the transition to CityRetail and Twining Properties people often wonder what I am doing working for a real estate development company and spending my time launching a retail advisory and brokerage business. Many folks believe this to be inconsistent with my commitment to and interest in small business and community economic development but these folks don’t see the big picture.  Similarly, friends and past classmates wonder what the socially minded lawyer who spent his third year in law school writing about how lawyers can better serve small, local, owner-operated businesses, particularly female and minority owned, is doing working for a Manhattan-based real estate developer whose most recent Cambridge project was a 24-story 321 unit apartment tower. I wonder sometime too, but then I take a step back and look at what we are doing in Kendall Square, remind myself of the kind of businesses we have brought to the market and the general change in attitude we are trying to bring to the retail game…

It’s about commitment – commitment to retail.

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