The buildout of lab space in Massachusetts continues to boom, and real estate investment firm Beacon Capital Partners wants Wellesley to get in on the action at 93 Worcester St. (aka, Wellesley Gateway) and across the road at Park 9 . More specifically, it wants to repurpose office space at the intersection of Rtes. 9 and 95 so that life sciences firms can move in.
This is new territory for Wellesley, but the town can look to many other communities across the state to see how they’ve handled and in some cases, encouraged, the arrival of life sciences firms. Natick is going through a similar process as it weighs the conversion of the Neiman Marcus space at Natick Mall for lab use, and is hearing the same arguments for and against doing so.
The possible influx of labs to these towns has been met with enthusiasm by developers, who cite “an impeccable safety track record” and strict regulations in the industry, plus the promise of new jobs at a variety of pay and skill levels. Residents have raised concerns about possible accidents and their impact on public health, and want town leaders to slow down a bit and put in place rules for such businesses as have other communities. Meanwhile, market watchers are keeping an eye on over-saturation and the challenges of finding employees.
Beacon Capital since last fall has been making the rounds through Wellesley’s boards and departments, including the Fire Department, Health Department, Select Board, Design Review Board, and currently Planning. Individual tenants will face further scrutiny once they commit to setting up labs.
The developer has made changes to its site conversion plans based on the local government feedback, including a shortening of exhaust fans on the roof, and pledged to deliver more specifics about its sustainability plans, which include the latest in efficient HVAC systems. The firm has also met with neighbors this year. Attorney David Himmelberger explained that converting the space from offices to labs does constitute a change of use, albeit one allowed by right in this district.
Planning Board: June 6
We’re picking up on this story during meeting No. 2 with the Planning Board, which took place on June 6 and takes up the first hour-plus of the session (see Wellesley Media recording). The Planning Board initially was briefed on and discussed this project of significant impact (PSI) at the start of its May 2 meeting, and among other things had requested additional information on the different levels of labs. Beacon Capital took some town officials on a field trip to The Beat, lab space in Boston that once housed the Boston Globe (no word on whether Beacon Capital will seek to redevelop headquarters for another media leader, The Swellesley Report, into a life sciences hub—not sure they can afford us).
As for the 40,000 sq. ft. up for discussion at 93 Worcester St., Beacon Capital made its marketing pitch, including a local life sciences market overview, on June 6. Beacon Capital’s Steve Purpura, citing new reporting from the Globe on the industry’s expansion in Greater Boston, said life sciences space has exploded from less than 10 million sq. ft. in 2000 to about 50 million sq. ft. About 10% of all the U.S. life sciences space can be found in suburbs, he said, attempting to assuage local concerns by pointing to the embrace by Lexington and other communities of this industry.
Space dedicated to largely biology-focused research must be purpose-built and requires great investment both by property owners and occupants, said Purpura, who has been called a “power broker” in the life sciences development field. Buildouts are regulated by numerous governing bodies, including the Department of Environmental Protection. One bonus of life science businesses is that occupancy levels tend to be less than than for other office park uses, as scientists need their own office space within the buildings, he said.
“There really is nothing to be concerned about here…” Purpura said.
Beacon Capital says the lab space designed for 93 Worcester St. will be for no higher than a biosafety level 2 (BSL-2), which according to the Centers for Disease Control involves “microbes [that] pose moderate hazards to laboratorians and the environment.” Beacon Capital’s Alan Koder says about 5% of the overall life sciences space would actually contains true BSL-2 lab space, and air filtration, showers, sinks, and other infrastructure is designed to keep it safe.
Planning Director Don McCauley ran through some of the PSI particulars, noting that the town’s engineering team and Municipal Light Plan needed more info at the time of the June 6 meeting, while the Select Board’s traffic review didn’t bring up any big issues.
Getting up to speed on labs
Several Planning Board members acknowledged during the meeting that they need to come more up to speed on bio labs. McCauley, before taking board member comments said: “What we have not made real progress on since the last meeting is fully understanding what a BSL-2 facility is and does in terms of potential safety issues…We certainly understand that that they are proliferating… and that’s a source of some comfort.”
Board member Tom Taylor followed that up by asking “where’s the source of expertise to learn more about the BSL-2 risks and safety…?” To which McCauley replied: “I’m not sure.” Taylor took that to mean, “doing our homework.”
Later in the meeting board member Kathleen Woodward wondered whether there’s any precedent for an applicant paying for technical experts not chosen by them to advise the town if it lacks such expertise in-house. “This kind of thing is done a lot in the environmental world,” she said, adding that it could be worth finding out if other communities mulling the entry of biotech firms have gone this route. The town’s counsel might need to be consulted on this approach.
[Separately, we emailed Wellesley Assistant Executive Director Amy Frigulietti about the town’s efforts to encourage such development or establish any industry-specific rules. “We plan to tour their facility in Boston in the coming weeks to get a better sense of operations, safety protocols, etc.,” she wrote. “While we did not specifically solicit biotech to come to Wellesley, we understand the need in the area and we look at this as a potential opportunity to not only create employment opportunities but also as a regional economic driver and alternative means to generate significant tax revenue for the Town.”]
Planning Chair Jim Roberti described the PSI process in this case as something of a Catch-22 in that it’s one thing to review municipal impacts, but it’s tough to do without really knowing what sort of labs might be moving in and their effect on building occupant safety and the neighbors. “I’m sure other towns have dealt with this, or maybe in other places that you guys have developed these kinds of properties you might have those answers readily available,” he said.
Purpura replied that Beacon Capital would be glad to help the town as it develops rules and regs around possible tenants. “We want to be part of this discussion. It protects us as much as it protects the residents,” he said. “We’re not looking to be a problem, we’re not looking to create any sort of hazard for the town. It’s a nice clean use and the more you understand what happens in these facilities the more comfortable you become with that.”
McCauley indicated the town could talk with peers in Lexington and put some standards in place even if not part of the formal bylaws.
Neighbors of the project got a chance to speak at the meeting as well. Some, like Diane & Bob Soderholm, had previously shared with Planning and other town officials a variety of resources from their research on this subject. “There are at least 90 other towns and cities in Massachusetts that have biosafety regulations, permits, and committees,” Diane Soderholm said during the meeting (examples she shared with us included Watertown and Weston). She also expressed concern about what might happen to biosafety level restrictions if the property were sold, and where specialized equipment like autoclaves or incinerators would be located.
Bob Soderholm expressed frustration that the board appeared not to have reviewed links to what he described as scholarly articles about university lab accidents and a lack of adherence to safety protocols. “I find it extraordinary that we would consider building bio labs on a commercial scale obviously far larger than any academic institution when this degree of lack of regulation and lack of safety is common in the environment…” he said, pleading for the board to get more data on lab safety before making a decision. Soderholm had written to us earlier commenting: “These labs always sound good… as long as they’re not in your backyard.”
Board Chair Roberti emphasized that the Planning Board needs to weigh projects like this using the rules at hand. “Every permit that is issued has its own rules, and its own set of how far we can go up, down, east, west, north south,” he said. “There are only certain legal limits we can reach…”
Board member Woodward added that the PSI process focuses on external impacts on the town based on infrastructure, and that the Wellesley Zoning Board of Appeals would get more internally focused.
Beacon Capital is slated to return to the Planning Board on June 27 at 6:30 pm.