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Forever 128

Burlington takes aim at Waltham

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2011
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For years Burlington has sat enviously in Waltham’s shadow while the old Watch City transformed itself into Route 128’s top destination for tech, biotech, and financial services companies.

Burlington got the malls while Waltham snagged the big-name, big-bucks office tenants.

But Burlington’s welcoming of retail development now looks almost prescient amid a shift in what companies are looking for in an increasingly 24/7 business world.

With a redevelopment in the works of one of its oldest office parks into a suburban restaurant mecca, Burlington has a chance to shake free of Waltham’s orbit and emerge as “downtown 128,’’ real estate executives say.

It’s a vision for Burlington as the Interstate 95 corridor’s Main Street, a place where shops, tony restaurants, offices, and even high-end housing come together in a single, appealing package.

Nordblom Cos., which is redeveloping its sprawling, 285-acre Northwest Park, is leading the charge in Burlington.

“They are rebranding Burlington as this high-end, downtown 128 location,’’ said Tamie Thompson, managing director at commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, who is working on the project.

For its part, the $500 million redevelopment features a mix of high-end housing, a boutique hotel, and restaurants as well as a 140,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket. Oh, and, of course, a couple of million square feet of office space to top it all off.

A centerpiece of the plan is to turn the now relatively nondescript Third Avenue into a restaurant row with a lively mix of eateries.

Not alone, Equity Office Properties Trust is spicing up the culinary offerings at the nearby New England Executive Park.

Tavern in the Square, which has locations in Salem, Cambridge, and Allston, plans to open a 314-seat restaurant at One New England Executive Park, which will include patio seating for up to 60.

That presents a marked change for the office park, which currently has just a small coffee shop.

If you are an office developer, why bother with restaurants and retail shops?

In short, companies along the 128 corridor are increasingly demanding such amenities - dubbed “support retail’’ in the business - as they compete for the best and brightest workers in the tech, life science, and financial service sectors.

While the national and state jobless rates remain high, it’s a different story in these relatively high-growth, high-pay fields, said Alex Dauria, regional managing director for Jones Lang LaSalle.

“In the knowledge-based economy, we are talking about 4 percent unemployment,’’ Dauria said. “You are talking about competing for the best and brightest, and part and parcel of that is the office environment.’’

The numbers seem to suggest that Burlington may be onto something.

Companies are increasingly shelling out rents for office space in Burlington that are approaching the top dollar that Waltham alone used to command on 128, according to commercial real estate brokers.

While top office rents in Waltham are in the low $40s per square foot, comparable prices in Burlington are just $5 lower, compared with twice that just a few years ago.

“In my 26 years in the business, I have never seen it really much closer than that,’’ Dauria said.

Doubters can also look at what has happened to Boston’s Back Bay over the past few years.

With its malls, shops, and restaurants, the Back Bay has been able to attract and keep towers like the Prudential and Hancock near full occupancy.

By contrast, Boston’s Financial District, which lacks the same variety of amenities, saw empty office space rise to more than 20 percent after the downturn.

So where does Waltham stand in all this?

Right now it’s looking more like the Financial District than the Back Bay.

For the first time in a few years, the 10.7-million-square-foot corporate mecca is playing catch-up.

Waltham has shops and restaurants, but for the most part people have to make a circuitous drive from the city’s office parks along 128 to its downtown to get to them.

Still, in this budding rivalry between 128 commercial hubs, Waltham holds some key cards, even if it doesn’t have as many nearby restaurants.

Chief among them is its location at the junction of 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Moreover, Boston Properties has plans to build an office/retail complex near 128, while developer Sam Park has sketched out retail plans for the former Polaroid site along the highway.

Yet neither is in construction yet, and even when built would not come near to rivaling what Burlington is adding now, let alone what it already has.

“The destination retail and some of the other amenities are in Burlington,’’ Dauria said. “Waltham has to catch up.’’

Still, could there not be a downside to the drive to build more retail along 128?

Yes, said Eric Bourassa, transportation manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

He said that retail, especially big-box stores, can significantly increase highway traffic. And anything that would pile more cars and trucks onto the already congested highway would be a concern.

“That has always been our concern,’’ Bourassa said. “How much retail can the corridor see?’’

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.

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