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Joe Nathanson: ‘Innovation district’ can reinvent city

In their recent book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley discuss some new forms of regional development that are both “economy shaping and place making.” They describe the emergence of “innovation districts” as a new phenomenon in the urban landscape:

“Innovation districts reflect a new vision of where innovative firms want to locate, where creative and talented workers want to live and work and how ideas happen. They embody a different vision from that of industrial districts or science parks of both the physical realm … and the community environment.”

During the course of this year, I’ve had the opportunity to see, on both coasts, what innovation districts might actually look like on the ground. While attending a conference in Boston earlier this year, our group toured a section of South Boston that had been an area of largely abandoned industrial buildings that are now turning into beehives of high-tech activity.

An initiative of longtime Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Boston Innovation District explicitly seeks to attract creative thinkers to a collaborative environment where professionals living and working in close proximity can conjure up “the next big thing.” The Boston initiative was launched in 2010 with a view toward transforming 1,000 acres on the South Boston waterfront into a place fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.

The district’s residential quarters, while providing a modest amount of space for individuals, typically have generous amounts of common space for trading ideas with one’s peers, comfortable coffee lounges or areas for simply “hanging out.” Regarding nearby work places, the Boston Innovation District is home to many startups as well as companies that have been around for a few years, including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Zipcar. The city reports that the district now has added 4,000 new jobs and 200 new companies.

Variations on the theme of developing opportunities for innovation were also on view during a recent visit to San Francisco. Physical spaces were part of the picture. Perhaps even more emphasis was being placed on an emerging lifestyle, one that requires much less in the way of material possessions and real estate. Young workers might have their basic living space needs satisfied in 275-square-foot apartments along with generous community spaces. Owning one’s personal auto would be less important than having access to car-sharing, bike-sharing or being able to use the BART trains and Muni buses.

The concept also takes concrete form in the Fifth and Mission Street building that once housed the San Francisco Chronicle. The 5M Project in the former newspaper offices is a redevelopment effort being managed by Forest City Enterprises. They describe the project as one that “fosters innovation by providing space, funding and counseling to startup companies.”

The property is now home to a large collaborative of artists, Intersection for the Arts. Other 5M tenants include the Hub, which supports social entrepreneurs, and TechShop, a do-it-yourself industrial workshop. Forest City’s plans for the larger mixed-use development incorporate residential units and retail space.

So, the question is, “Does Baltimore need an innovation district?” One might say we already have not one, but two science parks. Yet, the University of Maryland’s BioPark, while nurturing new biosciences companies, has never been planned as a 24/7 community. The East Baltimore Development Inc. health sciences park has had aspirations to be such a community combining living and work environments, but has yet to realize that vision.

I spoke to Jason Hardebeck, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, on the subject. He indicated that there has been much discussion about innovation districts here, but suggested that there has to be an overall strategy and that the city has to be involved. But, he cautioned, in Baltimore it is “difficult to herd cats.”

Bill Struever may have tried that “herding” in the past. As the head of his development firm, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, he championed the idea of building on our knowledge economy more than a decade ago, when he suggested this region should be branded as “the Digital Harbor.” Under the weight of the national and local economic downturn, that vision faded away.

Now with Cross Street Partners, Struever still sees the value of transforming city spaces into ones that encourage innovation. Speaking at the BioPark during Baltimore Innovation Week in late September, Struever was again extolling the idea of bringing together those elements in the urban environment that would nurture new discoveries. Perhaps it’s time to get some cats in line.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at