Activity Increasing at Worcester's Gateway Park
As Economy Improves, Expectations Grow for Area Near Lincoln Sq.
WORCESTER — As corporate offices go, Siemens Metal Technologies' new one is far from typical.
It is clean and spare: no desktop clutter. It doesn't even have desks — at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Siemens has curvy white tables that zig and zag across the floor, divided into different “neighborhoods” named for the hills of Worcester. Along with conference rooms, there are smaller meeting spaces called “think tanks.” And almost every employee, including department heads, sits OUT in the open instead of in private offices.
The office also stands out because of its location.
Siemens recently moved about 200 employees to Gateway Park, a once-blighted area near Lincoln Square that Worcester Polytechnic Institute has been transforming into a mixed-use development. The concept behind the park was to foster the life sciences industry in Worcester. Siemens, a manufacturer of rolling mills, doesn't fit that mold.
But it does fill almost two of the four floors at Gateway's newest building, 50 Prescott St., and allows this ambitious redevelopment project to move forward.
“We're starting to see that mixed use, not just life sciences,” said Kevin O'Sullivan, president and chief executive of another tenant in the building, Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives.
The first major milestone for Gateway Park was in 2007, with the completion of the 125,000-square-foot WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center. A 660-car parking garage opened the same year.
A new $32 million building at Gateway Park, known as Gateway II, welcomed its first tenants in the fall. About 5,100 of the building's 92,000 square feet remain vacant.
“We hope to lease to a life science company, or any other commercial tenant,” said Andrew Crystal, vice president of O'Connell Development Group of Holyoke, which owns and manages the building.
The rest of the building is occupied by Siemens, MBI, Blue Sky Biotech Inc. and a few WPI programs, including the School of Business. The building was constructed with the help of a $5.2 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, and with the promise of a discount in city property taxes.
WPI, which has spent more than $100 million on Gateway Park, owns all the land there. The footprint includes three vacant plots in the Prescott Street area, beside Interstate 290, still waiting to be developed. WPI President Dennis D. Berkey said the university is not ready to start another building yet, but he hopes to see all three sites full within the next decade.
One major challenge is attracting life science companies to Worcester.
“As the economy gets stronger, there will be more life science companies that will be trying to come in to Gateway,” Mr. Berkey said. “We need to do more aggressive marketing to bring more life science companies west of 495.”
Mr. Berkey and others who want to grow the life sciences industry in Worcester point to Blue Sky Biotech as an example of success. Blue Sky started in an MBI incubator in Worcester 10 years ago. It later moved to the original Gateway Park research building, but after outgrowing that space it moved next door to Gateway II.
Today, Blue Sky has nearly 40 employees, many of them scientists in white lab coats who use specialized equipment to work with cells and make proteins. They do contract research for companies in the early stages of drug development. Their customers include pharmaceutical heavyweights like Sanofi and Merck & Co.
Paul Wengender, founder and chief executive of the company, which now uses the name Blue Sky BioServices, settled on setting up in Worcester only after he looked at spaces in the biotech hub of Cambridge and along the Interstate 95 belt. Mr. Wengender soon realized costs were lower in Worcester.
And, “I realized I could get access to talent. It comes down to talent,” he said.
The Gateway Park neighborhood has made progress since the idea for the park was hatched several years ago. A large part of the former voke school property, owned by the Worcester Business Development Corp., is being converted to loft apartments. WPI is constructing a student dormitory at Grove and Faraday streets. And a developer just last week announced plans to build a 100-room hotel in the neighborhood, bringing competition for the Courtyard by Marriott on Grove Street.
Gateway Park started as a collaboration of the WBDC and WPI. The university took sole ownership of the property in 2010.
Craig L. Blais, president and chief executive officer of the WBDC, said he is mostly pleased with the area's progress, given a difficult economy.
“However, I would like to see more retail space in the first floors to activate the streets as was originally planned,” he said by email.
He welcomed the new hotel project, but said the neighborhood could also use more conference space and more office space, to create density.
Siemens represents the first big piece of the office space component. Gateway II allowed the company, which also operates a manufacturing facility on Crescent Street, to move employees from a more-than-century-old building to a new one, close by. Siemens signed a 7-year lease for Gateway.
“Most people enjoy it,” Russell H. Vanderbaan, Siemens' human resources director, said of the new building and the company's new office design. “There's been a very positive reaction from our employees, even people who you think wouldn't enjoy it. There's more interaction with people.”
Though perhaps at a slower pace than first envisioned, Gateway Park has turned a highly visible brownfield into a more active and attractive area.
“The concept is to develop a new neighborhood for Worcester, not just WPI,” Mr. Berkey said.
The next phase will begin only when a private developer sees sufficient demand, he said. WPI may choose to work with O'Connell Development again on the next building.
“A developer,” Mr. Berkey said, “(has) to see a strong demand before they're able to take the risk.”
Doug Reilly of Marlboro, a research associate at Blue Sky Biotech Inc., looks at data relating to purifying proteins. Blue Sky recently moved to a new building at Gateway Park in Worcester after outgrowing its space in a building next door. (JOHN FERRARONE)