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The Arsenal on the Charles, ten years later

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 23, 2010 10:25 AM

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A decade ago this month, at what was pretty much the apogee of the dot-com frenzy, I started writing a weekly column for The Globe called @large. Since then, I've been a steady contributor to the paper and Boston.com — though my column went monthly during the two-and-a-half years I was living in San Francisco.

It's funny to look back at the very first @large column, from February of 2000, which focused on a real estate project in Watertown that turned an early 19th century Army complex in Watertown into office space for Internet companies. I wrote:

    ...Office space - not server space - is chief among the concerns of Boston's Internet CEOs, whose companies are growing at rates that often surpass 100 percent a month.

    An address in Kendall Square in Cambridge carries plenty of prestige, but the commercial vacancy rate in the People's Republic is 0.8 percent, says Realtor Joe Flaherty of Meredith & Grew.

    "There's essentially absolutely no space available in Kendall Square," he says.


The Watertown project was The Arsenal on the Charles

Many of the tenants I wrote about in 2000 are, unsurprisingly, no longer with us. HighWired.com, an online publishing platform for high schools, raised $30 million the following month but went out of business anyway. ThingWorld, a CMGI-funded company that aimed to help media companies manage their copyrighted characters as they spread across the Web, is also gone. The complex's vaguely-Caribbean Naked Fish restaurant has since been replaced by the authentically Venezuelan La Casa de Pedro, and there's a Panera Bread, too. In 2001, Harvard bought the complex.

But over the past decade, The Arsenal on the Charles has remained a pretty popular place for medium and big tech companies to be, if they require too much square footage to be in downtown Boston or Kendall Square but don't want to head out to the 128 ring. Suzanne Alter, the complex's general manager, told me that the occupancy rate is about 98 percent.

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"Watertown is like Cambridge, with free parking," writes Diane Hessan in an e-mail. Hessan is the chief executive of Communispace, a digital market research company that leases about 40,000 square feet at the Arsenal. With 257 employees and 21 job openings, Hessan says the company is almost out of expansion space at the complex, and hoping to find more rather than move elsewhere. Hessan says that 75 percent of the company's employees live within 7.5 miles of the office. (The company's lunchroom/meeting space, pictured at left, is an homage to Fenway Park.)

Two of the Arsenal's biggest current tenants are publicly-traded, home-grown Massachusetts companies: battery-maker A123 Systems and Athenahealth, which provides digital record keeping services to physicians. Athenahealth, the biggest tenant, has 580 employees in Watertown. 

Childcare provider Bright Horizons Family Solutions, once publicly-traded but now private, is also headquartered at the Arsenal. The rest of the current tenant list is an interesting slice of the innovation economy in Boston: mobile software companies like Enterprise Mobile and Mobile Messenger, CAD and imaging software firms, various healthcare IT companies, doctors offices, ad agencies, a couple animation and entertainment production companies, and consulting firms like Innosight (fo-founded by Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen) and Molecular (one of the original tenants from 2000, when it was still called TVisions).

If you've ever paid a visit to one of the tenants at the Arsenal, you've undoubtedly noticed that parking spots are in short supply, even though there's a large parking garage on the premises. It's one of the few places I visit regularly where they've got valet parkers — free —waiting to take your keys when parking is tight.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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