Boston-Cambridge Google wars

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“It’s too bad.” That’s how the president of the Boston City Council greeted last night’s news that Google had won approvals to expand its Cambridge headquarters. Google ran into a surprisingly contentious expansion fight in Cambridge, raising hopes in Government Center that Boston might be able to poach the tech giant from across the Charles. Last night’s Cambridge City Council vote puts an end to those hopes. Hence, Steve Murphy’s dejected “too bad” quote in the Herald. The whole episode speaks volumes about the state of economic development in Boston — the city talks a world-class game, but is often chasing leftovers from across the river.

Google’s Cambridge expansion involves connecting two Kendall Square office buildings with a 40,000 square foot, multi-story glass bridge. The bridge would cut in half a rooftop public park that sits atop a parking garage. To make up for building on protected open space, Google’s landlord would build a bigger park, at ground level, two blocks away. The plan stirred up fierce opposition among East Cambridge residents. That’s when Boston stepped in.

Cambridge residents and officials fight over every square foot in Kendall Square because the vast majority of the square’s real estate is spoken for. That makes every decision about what gets built, or left unbuilt, a zero-sum game. Officials and landlords in South Boston have the opposite problem — they have acres of vacant space, and need businesses to come in and fill it. Last summer, Boston officials broke ground on a massive new headquarters for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a firm the city lured from Cambridge. When Google ran into trouble permitting its Cambridge expansion, Boston officials hoped to pull a repeat. “We told them we’re ready to go,” Boston Mayor Tom Menino told the Herald this past weekend. Such a move would have sped construction in South Boston. But it wouldn’t have grown the state’s overall economy or created permanent jobs that aren’t already heading for Cambridge.

In February, House Speaker Robert DeLeo lamented the fact that Facebook is headquartered in California, even though it was founded in Cambridge. He made an overture to the tech company’s founder, and the founders of the next Facebooks: “To Mark Zuckerberg, and other leaders of new companies, we want you here.” After watching the Boston-Cambridge flare-up over Google, maybe DeLeo should have added, “Especially if you’re already here in the first place.”


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