Leveraging a Mix of Uses, the N-Squared Innovation District Attracts a Burgeoning Ed / Tech Secto

"We knew we needed to rethink work and leisure to promote more meaningful conversations. Lines are blurred in the way we live today; therefore our space should reflect that.” 

Jodie McLean – CEO, EDENS

The value of blurring the lines between work and leisure, summed up succinctly in a press release by retail developer EDENS regarding the recent merging of their office space with a local bookstore and café, reflect the general sentiment of many of today’s companies when it comes to location, design of work environments and the culture they embrace. They want to be in a neighborhood that has options for shopping, living, dining and playing, and they want their own space to reflect the variety of daily experiences their employees seek. The overlap of work and leisure is bemoaned by many, especially at home, but in the work environment, office tenants and developers alike are seeing value in softening the divide between work and play. And let’s face it, who doesn’t like it when a little leisure time makes its way into the work day?

In the N-Squared Innovation District, encompassing 500 acres in Newton and Needham, the trend of colocating education / tech companies like Empow Studios and Examity in retail based mixed-use developments, is beginning to change the face of the district and the face of these companies. Leonid Tunik of EMPOW Studios sees the value of their new location at 180 Needham Street. “The Newton-Needham community has always been very interested in our technology programs. It’s time we established a year-round presence in the Newton area that features our project-based technology curriculum. It’s fair to say that the momentum of development on the Needham Street corridor and the N-Squared Innovation District put it at the top of our list.”

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From their perch on the second floor of 180 Needham Street, redeveloped by Crosspoint Associates, Empow Studios new space looks out over Needham Street and the newly opened Newton Nexus retail development. Empow sees the redeveloped Needham Street corridor as a great point of synergy with their popular Weekend Clubs and the STEM Club, a fully licensed after-school care program with a technology twist. Mixing education, technology and after school care is complimented by the ability of parents and Empow employees to run errands and get things done as they go to and from the studio. The retail center also sees the benefit of foot traffic in traditionally off-peak retailing hours.

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Below the studio is the new Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza. Replacing the dangerous eyesore of head-in parking at the relocated Boston Ski and Tennis, with outdoor dining and a graceful, entrance sequence to the studio above has completely transformed the experience of 180 Needham Street at this critical mid-corridor link.


Across Needham Street, Examity, an ed-tech online proctoring solution, has just begun construction on converting 10,000 sf of prime second-floor space into their new headquarters. While the development of Nexus was key to Examity’s decision to choose Needham Street as their new home, CEO Michael London also has a clear vision for creating a work environment where people can interact in a variety of settings that integrate leisure activities, such as a stolen moment at a cafe or an after-work cocktail with colleagues, into the daily experience of his employees.

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The well-executed redevelopment of the Needham Street corridor, emphasizing a mix of complimentary uses that overlap work and leisure, is proving to be a desirable home for ed / tech companies and great retail destinations alike. As more and larger projects come on-line, featuring higher residential density and integrated open space systems, these companies will find themselves situated in a dynamic, walkable, 24/7 district that thrives on innovation and quality of experience.

Applying Placemaking Principles to the Design of a Collaborative Workplace

While placemaking principles are commonly referenced when developing complex mixed-use projects or revisioning the public realm, they are also surprisingly relevant for designing today’s office work environments. Underlying tenets that promote social interaction and collaboration can truly define the culture of the workplace and have a dramatic impact on productivity. But beyond productivity, a work environment should be an engaging place to be – both stimulating and educational. This is shaped, not only by the physical surroundings, but by programming, and ultimately, the diversity of its users.

Purposeful Planning – For certain businesses - like architectural firms - the open office environment remains a primary catalyst for meaningful collaboration. An open landscape facilitates communication on many levels and, whether direct or indirect, helps underline a company’s values and desired processes. The purposeful juxtaposition of younger staff and senior leadership establishes a culture of trust and is one of the most important components of mentoring. Whether overhearing in-house discussions regarding design process or listening to a phone conversation between a partner and a client, this exposure to navigating a range of diverse interactions is invaluable for employees of all ages and experience levels.

The new open office landscape at Form + Place, an architectural firm in Newton Highlands

The new open office landscape at Form + Place, an architectural firm in Newton Highlands


Clearly Defined Gathering Spaces – Beyond open studio space, a well-rounded workplace should offer a variety of gathering spaces that can be programmed for a range of activities, whether work-related or purely for social interaction. A cohesive office environment is one that promotes community-building, and flexible gathering space that can accommodate active and passive uses is ideal. In larger work environments, some of these spaces can migrate to the ground floor lobby of an office building. Today’s office lobbies can offer opportunities for interaction with other tenants or a collection of local vendors and, thus, connectivity to the larger community. Subtle design decisions that shape a company’s immediate work environment can include integrating public “pin-up” space for collaborative project discussions or providing rotating gallery space for employee or client artwork. Again, if these forums are integrated into the open office environment, they speak to a company’s process and culture.

Integrating gallery space into an office landscape

Integrating gallery space into an office landscape


Quality of Space – A thoughtfully designed work environment not only makes a lasting impression on your clients, it fosters a positive outlook, camaraderie and loyalty among employees. While ergonomics often point to the quality of the workstation as a key to efficiency, one could easily argue that very simple desk space has merits if it is placed in an environment filled with light, warm finishes and the buzz of conversation.

Connectivity to Larger Community – Similar to the relationship between buildings and the public spaces on which they front, desirable work environments are even more engaging when they are connected to a vibrant community context. A quality office location in a walkable neighborhood complete with restaurants, public amenities and connectivity to public transportation will attract a more diverse staff, especially a younger demographic that has a less auto-centric lifestyle.

Newton Highlands - a walkable neighborhood

Newton Highlands - a walkable neighborhood


Requires a vision – In order to accurately reflect the culture of a company, placemaking in the work environment must represent the values of the entire “community,” not just one person.

Placemaking is an ongoing process – Perhaps most importantly, the work environment should be an evolving landscape. Like a master plan for a community, it must be reevaluated constantly and there must be a willingness to reconceive it periodically to reflect a company’s desired culture, process and goals.


“When we started looking for new office space, we knew we needed to find three things: a location that simplified how employees got to work every day, a neighborhood that engages us on a daily basis, and an office space that supports the way we work every day.”

John Rufo – Principal, Form + Place

The Placemaking Continuum: Designing Connectivity in Mixed-use Development

The term placemaking has been most commonly used by urban designers, architects and developers to represent the purposeful planning and design of public spaces that have desirable qualities. Great places, particularly in well-defined urban settings, tend to evolve organically over time. When developers and municipalities manage to get on the same page, the accepted principles of good placemaking can find their way into a broad range of contexts. A well-conceived public space can define a development, be the focal point of a neighborhood or become the identity of an entire city.

Copley Square, Boston

Copley Square, Boston

Many developers seek to reposition underutilized industrial campuses or failing mall properties by incorporating the fundamentals of quality placemaking. The shift a number of years ago to create open-air environments – branded as lifestyle centers – often rang hollow, however, when the principles of placemaking were applied in a limited way that lacked cohesion. Legacy Place in Dedham has been considered a desirable shopping environment by many for some time now. Anchored by a mix of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail shops and a supermarket, Legacy strove to develop active storefront-lined streetscapes. Critics note that the development lacks an identifiable and usable public open space and, with large surface parking fields at its center, it is still a destination that is largely automobile-centric.

Legacy Place, Dedham

Legacy Place, Dedham

Placemaking seems to be most successful when it is authentic, organic, integrated and representative of a larger community context. In the most successful of these environments, placemaking principles manifest themselves at many different scales. It is easy to identify what makes a village center like Newton Highlands, for example, have a certain vibrancy – highly articulated, pedestrian-scaled streetscapes lined with a mix of shops, restaurants and community-based uses, together with upper level office space and residences. One could argue, however, that it is the fact that Newton Highlands has an MBTA green line stop at it’s core, connecting it to the larger Boston context, that is hugely critical to making it a thriving place.

Newton Highlands Village Center

Newton Highlands Village Center

Though at a completely different scale, the Riverwalk mill property in Lawrence, being redeveloped by Lupoli Companies with input from the planning and design firm Form + Place, has a unique opportunity to reinvent itself by focusing on integrating the key tenets of good placemaking. With over 2 million square feet of programmable mill space and a master plan vision to add new signature buildings, Riverwalk has the potential to be a truly catalyzing project on the downtown Lawrence waterfront. Located directly across the street from a new multi-modal commuter rail station and situated in the urban core, the project’s connectivity to its larger context is already established. Early master plan studies have emphasized the infusion of streetscapes and a variety of usable public open space into the heart of the complex, converting vast fields of parking into a walkable, highly-articulated pedestrian environment, where first floor uses serve to activate the ground plane. The creation of pedestrian-scaled environments is quite a challenge given the scale of the mill buildings which, in some instance, are longer than the Prudential Tower is tall.

Riverwalk Properties, Lawrence

Riverwalk Properties, Lawrence

Lupoli Companies has been very forward-thinking in the repositioning of the existing buildings, realizing that placemaking opportunities do not stop with the exterior public realm. While the opportunity for a new river walk, complete with outdoor dining and other amenities, is certainly an important focus, the lobbies of the mill buildings also present extraordinary opportunities for placemaking. With a goal to create a diverse mixed-use experience, including a range of office environments [traditional to open landscape], these transition spaces between a newly-defined public realm and mixed-use interior environments will be critically important.

Centuries ago, the Nolli plan of Rome documented the significance of connections between the interiors of notable buildings and the public realm they front on. This remains a very important aspect of cohesive placemaking today.

Nolli Map of Rome

Nolli Map of Rome

MGM Springfield: The Impact of Experiential Retail on the Main Street Corridor

“MGM is seamlessly integrating its stunning experience into the fabric of an historic city. The community’s character is honored by sensitive design and its experience is enhanced through open-air “place-making”. At inception, Form + Place was tasked to respect the DNA of MGM Resorts International, while reviving the energy and charm of Springfield’s long-treasured Main Street. The result is an urban master plan that blends old and new into a remarkable New England destination.”  – Chuck Irving, Davenport Companies

With total construction costs anticipated to be $900 million, the MGM Springfield project is nearing completion, and is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2018. The project has certainly evolved from early conceptual design studies in 2012, with the signature 25-story hotel tower morphing into a more integrated low-rise building, designed to provide a higher level of definition to the Main Street corridor. The fundamental vision, however, to create a catalyzing urban mixed-use destination with entertainment, experiential retail, restaurants and, of course, a casino, has remained consistent.


Working with MGM and Davenport Companies, Form + Place’s initial urban diagrams put forward the idea to turn the retail and entertainment component of the casino outward to engage the downtown. While casino retail leasing is traditionally introverted - oriented towards patrons on the gambling floor - it was posited that flipping this focus outward would reiterate the desire to connect with the larger community and to help stimulate economic development along the Main Street corridor. At the heart of the retail and entertainment experience is the concert venue / skating rink which, using the historic Armory building as a backdrop, will provide publicly accessible space with daily programming. The entertainment options will also include an 8-lane bowling alley, a 35,000 sf cinema with 8 screens, several restaurant/pub concepts and a diverse compliment of local and national retail tenants.

From a “placemaking” perspective, this experience will be uniquely Springfield. The Armory building, portions of which were damaged during the 2011 tornado, is being refurbished and, together with the 130 year old First Spiritualist Church, which was relocated to the site, represents a thoughtful preservation of Springfield’s architectural history. The church will become the home of Kringle Candle, which will bring its uniquely New England brand to the project. Historic themes will be reinforced throughout the interior and exterior of the casino, with Springfield’s heritage celebrated through the use of industrial materials, the incorporation of artifacts from the Springfield Museums and tributes to famous locals such as Dr. Seuss, who was born and raised on the site.


It will be interesting to track the impact of the casino development on future economic development in downtown Springfield. Currently, there are plans to renovate the historic Court Square Hotel building into an apartment complex, which will fulfill MGM’s obligation to provide 54 market rate units. And diagonally across Main Street from the casino, Form + Place helped master plan another exciting new development called Davenport Square. Designed to be synergistic with MGM’s outdoor plaza, Davenport Square will be a mixed-use, Main Street project programmed for retail, restaurants, medical offices and daycare. In addition to these projects, numerous feasibility studies have been done over the past 6-7 years to imagine the repositioning potential of other properties along the Main Street corridor, as far down as Tower Square.  Understanding which uses and vendors will ultimately be targeted won’t become clear until MGM announces the full complement of its retail and entertainment tenants this Spring.


The Value of Hand Drawing in The Age of Computer Visualization

“Drawings of eyelevel and interior views…tend to show an environment with a warmth, subtlety, and humanity not present in model photographs or computer-generated images.” Paul Stevenson Oles, AIA

Today, architects and planners frequently use volumetric computer modeling from the outset as an integrated design tool.  Visualization firms like NeoScape, Tangram 3DS, TiltPixel and others can use these models to create incredible photo-real renderings, which have broad appeal.  At Form + Place, in addition to using these tools, we believe that hand drawing plays an integral role in the visioning process. 

A while back when I was studying architecture at RISD, I helped teach the Perspective Drawing class. This was before computers became ubiquitous in the architectural design process. Creating “3D constructed perspectives” of projects was a matter of first creating plans, sections and elevations of the building, and then, painstakingly creating the rendering through a process of establishing a view point, a horizon line, a picture plane and then projecting the image manually onto the picture plain with a very long ruler. It was time consuming and if you messed up… there was no easy way of editing the rendering in process. While computers have given us a new range of efficient visualization tools, we have found that the drawing process is still quite valuable both for evolving the design and creating final presentation renderings that convey a narrative that more closely reflects our clients’ goals and values.  They invite the client to participate in the process, rather than suggesting that a design has been finalized.

As plan and program concepts for a project evolve, we simultaneously model the most basic massing characteristics of the buildings and public realm (usually in Google Sketch-Up) to create an approach to architectural style and placemaking. In an iterative process between sketching and computer modeling, the visual characteristics of a project emerge. In the world of private commercial development our clients need to visualize the project early-on in the process to consider how they might begin to discuss it in the community and with potential tenants and partners. Sometimes, like on the Dascomb Road Project, an interim stage of mixing hand-drawn vignettes with computer model exports allows for an efficient, affordable way of testing the design in public, while presenting a project that is clearly still in process as the client solicits community input.

When Form + Place created the public realm retail concept for MGM Springfield, there were a series of existing buildings on the site that could not be removed and would need to be integrated into the design of the future mixed-use gaming and entertainment venue. One of these buildings was the existing armory, the rear portion of which was damaged by the tornado of 2011, and subsequently demolished. The front castle-like façade of the armory, however, is somewhat magical in its fanciful architecture. Creating an image that cast the building as the backdrop to a concert stage in an open-air setting was key to MGM visualizing the casino and entertainment uses engaging the surrounding streets, and creating a new neighborhood, rather than an inward-looking gaming destination.

The Winthrop Center Business District master plan involved another type of visioning exercise that called for a softer approach to image making and urban visioning. While the MGM exercise was used as a quick spark to catalyze a new development model for a seasoned commercial entertainment company, the images we generated for Winthrop were intended for the general public, and were used to convey the variety of opportunities that were possible in the Center Business District. To that end, the more accessible approach of free-hand renderings, occasionally complimented by shots of a computer model, was a method that helped bring the community into the dialogue, allowing them to contribute to the process of early idea generation about the future of their city.

In the end, whether it’s a hand-drawn sketch merged with a digital export that is then augmented in Photoshop, or an ink and marker vignette sketched over a photo, we are committed to the process of story-telling and communicating ideas. We’ve found that our process is most successful when our clients are engaged early on, often with the aid of hand drawing, which in turn fosters a mutual interest in seeing our projects brought to life.

Needham Street in Newton – Evolving from Strip to Street

“for a walk to be favored, it has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting” - Walkable City by Jeff Speck

If you’ve occasionally driven down Needham Street in Newton over the course of the last few years, you’ve witnessed the start of a metamorphosis. This commercial strip has been historically characterized by isolated retailers and a hodgepodge of office buildings and light manufacturing. But over the course of the last decade the consolidation of certain parcels and the general pressure to develop land for maximum return on investment has fostered an opportunity whereby Needham Street could evolve from a classic commercial strip into a genuine walkable and vibrant street.

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As an urban planning diagram, the Needham Street environs is confounding. While it stretches enviably between route 9 and route 95 and the Green Line, an overlay of major arteries and nodes shows that the connection points are constricted, strained or just incomplete. While most of these can be overcome with time and thoughtful planning, it is heartening that the impetus of the evolution of Needham Street stems from the people who shop, work and reside in this area, and who are demanding more from the settings that they live, work and shop in. Thankfully that demand is trickling up to today’s savvy developers who are responding with projects that value placemaking as an essential design objective.

There is probably nothing more antithetical to placemaking than large swaths of lawn separating the sidewalk from buildings that crave and need street engagement. This was more or less the norm on Needham street until recently when the developers of projects like Needham Street Village Shops (Bierbrier Development Inc.), 170 Needham Street (The Growth Companies), 180 Needham Street (Crosspoint Associates, Inc.), and now the Newton Nexus (also by Crosspoint) put forth proposals that engage the sidewalk directly with building mass, outdoor dining and landscaping that focuses on inviting patrons rather than buffering fast moving cars. The result is a street section that creates a contained, walkable outdoor room such as one finds in good cities and towns. Walnut Street in Newtonville makes a good comparison as it is both a major thoroughfare, and also a village center.

The evolution of Needham Street into a place rather than just a drive by strip will depend on not just engaging, street-focused site design, but also the development of high density housing options. Avalon at Newton Highlands started that ball rolling several years ago. It seemed a pretty perplexing development at the time, but now as the neighborhood evolves, it seems like Avalon was ahead of the curve in seeing the underlying potential in Needham Street. This hasn’t been lost on Northland Development which has proposed the biggest plans unveiled yet. Their 30-acre masterplan for the Oak Street spur off of Needham Street proposes to bring 950 new units of housing and seems to genuinely embrace the walkable neighborhood concept.

Through the latest economic cycle great progress has been made to raise the quality of the environment as part of the ongoing development boom. Time will tell if good planning and an aggregate of projects that embrace the value of engaging the street edge can stitch together Needham Street as a cohesive, walkable whole.

Technical Assistance Panels: The Power of Teaming ULI, Professional Expertise and MassDevelopment

Among the diverse initiatives that the Urban Land Institute and MassDevelopment champion to help communities across the Commonwealth, the day-long Technical Assistance Panel [TAP] charrette is one of the most engaging for panelists and stakeholders alike. The December 12th TAP in Ashland, MA, co-chaired by Michael Wang of Form + Place and Jamie Simchik of Simchik Planning and Development, brought together professionals possessing a wide range of expertise from land planning, architecture and landscape architecture to market analysis, environmental permitting and the real estate development world.

The Ashland TAP, not unlike recent panels in other Massachusetts communities - such as in Yarmouth, Dedham and Leominster - was a 12-hour brainstorming session that asked panelists to tour the focus area, review documents [recent studies, zoning, etc.] and conduct a series of interviews with the goal of addressing a few key questions posed by Town leadership. In Ashland’s case, experts were asked to make recommendations for how the Town might stimulate economic development in a downtown that already has a variety of assets, including a collection of architecturally distinct buildings and a surrounding area rich in natural resources – river, parkland, etc. Ashland does have some fairly unique challenges, however, ranging from an active commuter rail line that bisects Main Street on grade, a commuter rail station relocated outside the typical “walkable” TOD radius, and some environmental concerns stemming from a nearby Superfund site.

As with many outer-ring suburban communities, revitalizing the core often centers on the need to create a “there” there. Among the recommendations that the panel put forward, the incentivization of multi-family residential development in the downtown – ideally in a mixed-use equation – was identified as an essential driver. But attracting a critical mass of people to live in the core clearly requires a holistic vision for what downtown Ashland can become. The Town is currently studying how improvements to the streetscapes can simultaneously improve traffic flow and create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. The panel felt that revisions to the zoning that would promote development patterns to reinforce the definition of street walls [continuity], create opportunities for more density and facilitate a diverse mix of uses [i.e. restaurants/coffee shops] would go a long way towards attracting private investment. This must happen in conjunction with improvements to infrastructure and thoughtful consideration of how to reshape the public realm to allow for the integration of memorable spaces that can be programmed for active and passive use.

Technical Assistance Panels can be a key stepping stone and present a rare opportunity for communities to gain insights from a group of experts that do not have any specific allegiance to their community. Often local efforts get bogged down by the anti-development sentiments of a few outspoken stakeholders who spread fears of the potential disastrous impacts on school systems, traffic and parking. In many cases, studies have shown that these concerns are unfounded or can be reasonably mitigated.  With a number of key development parcels already under Town control, Ashland is in a good position to push forward a catalyzing project or two.  Partnering with private land owners who have significant holdings in the downtown will be an essential component to bringing Ashland's vision for a new town center to fruition.

Sketch Diagram of Key Opportunities from TAP Charrette

Sketch Diagram of Key Opportunities from TAP Charrette

Westford Valley Marketplace – Experiencing Community in Today’s Shopping Places

“Yes, technology has changed the way people shop. But it will never match the feeling of real-life experiences and sense of community. People will always want to get out, feel good about their surroundings, and to connect with the world beyond an inanimate, one-dimensional screen.” – Andy LaGrega, Principal, The Wilder Companies

Like many of our clients, Andy LaGrega believes whole heartedly that to stay relevant in the retail game, developers have to offer experiences and amenities that speak to the idea of community engagement. That can be a tall order when repositioning an existing retail strip center, especially if it has a continuous arcade, little or no public space amenities, and is generally outdated in its architectural style. Westford Valley Marketplace is very typical of strip centers of its vintage, but along with being newly anchored by a Whole Foods Market, it is being renovated to address three critical design elements in these types of centers.

Curb Appeal in Approach and Orientation:

As one arrives at Westford Valley, the presentation of the existing building facade is a somewhat grim, grey monotonous band at the outer edge of a continuous arcade. The façade provides little or no retailer identity, but it is punctuated occasionally by gable end roof forms. These elements provided an opportunity for the project team to develop a composition of forms that engage shoppers as they enter the center and group tenant signage on distinguishing architectural elements. The roof forms additionally allowed the team to establish a more traditional New England vernacular style throughout the center.

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Overcoming the drawbacks of the arcade:

The arcaded retail strip center is a building type that we are often asked to help reposition by our clients. It derives from an outdated assumption that you had to protect shoppers from the weather to get them to come out and spend money. In today’s market it’s been proven that patrons prefer an environment that is more “open air”… as long as there are engaging reasons to stay a while and visit multiple venues. Since it is often too expensive to tear down the arcades and rebuild new facades in their place, creative ways of rebranding the outer façade and softening the arcade itself with updated lighting, signage, and finishes is critical in these efforts. While wrapping existing steel pipe or concrete columns with new masonry or other finishes may seem intuitive, arcade columns often compromise sight lines to tenant storefront, so care needs to be given to how it is done and how often.

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Making the best of open space opportunities:

At Westford Valley Marketplace a zone of shrubs was originally planted at the outer edge of the Arcade. This zone now provides an opportunity to create an area that is a tenant and patron amenity as well as a real community benefit. By combining hard and soft landscape elements along with new lighting, seating and other outdoor furniture, an active zone of programmable public space can be created along the front of the entire center. Café and other food tenants can spill out onto these enlarged sidewalk areas to engage shoppers and create a sense of place and desire to linger longer. Like all our successful clients, The Wilder Companies runs active programming campaigns, communicated through social media and other outlets, that help to bring out shoppers for unique community retailing events. Small open spaces that provide areas for sidewalk activity are perfect places for these kinds of events to occur, and support the sense of community that is so critical to the success of today’s retail centers.