Cambridge is the “other Boston.” Cambridge faces Boston
across the Charles River and is many things Boston isn’t.
Where Boston is finance, Cambridge is knowledge. Where Boston
is button down shirts, old boy networks, and stuffy clubs, Cambridge
is pocket protectors, computer chips, and labs.
Cambridge: the other Boston? Or Boston: the other Cambridge?
Boston lays claim to a Greater Boston that spreads from The Hub as
far as you can drive until you are in Greater something else.
Yet smack in the middle of Greater Boston is Greater Cambridge, and
the two are as different from one another as night and day.
Somerville is part of Greater Cambridge. Somerville has seen a
large part of its stock of three-deckers transformed into trendy
flats. Somerville follows the Cambridge model and, in Tufts,
has its own excellent university.
Jamaica Plain is an outpost of Cambridge. Jamaica Plain is
multi-ethnic, multi-gender, and multi-income, with incomes mainly
moving up. All of which are Cambridge things to be. The
Longwood Medical Area is part of Greater Cambridge. Longwood
is full of doctors and researchers who went to school in Cambridge.
Longwood is part biotech. And biotech, of course, is headquartered
Lexington is in Greater Cambridge, and so is Lincoln. All
those scientists and entrepreneurs need leafy suburbs of their own.
Route 2 is the highway that connects all those places in Greater
The office sector is as stalled out in Greater Boston as it is in
Greater Cambridge. Office rents are stuck. What was
going to be new construction at Filene’s in downtown Boston is a
hole in the ground. Boston looks at Cambridge and says, “We
can do that.” Boston has lured Vertex, a Cambridge biotech
company, to new space on the South Boston waterfront. Boston
has done all it can to re-brand the South Boston waterfront an
“innovation district.” If it succeeds, it will have created
Cambridge by the Sea.
Cambridge’s residential tax rate compares favorably with the rates
in Somerville, Brookline, and Newton. With all maintaining
assessments at 100% of market value, Cambridge’s residential tax
rate is 25% below any of those other communities. Its
residential tax rate is 36% below the rate for Boston.
Paradoxically, property taxes in this liberal bastion are lower than
taxes in any of those other places.
Residential prices compare favorably to prices in those communities,
as well, with Cambridge’s median condominium price of $422,500 equal
to Newton’s, higher than Somerville’s, and lower than only
Brookline’s. The median condominium price in Cambridge has
held steady since the Greater Boston residential market price peak
of 2005-2006, whereas most Greater Boston communities, including
Newton, have seen a decline.
Construction remains alive across Cambridge, ranging from a new
biotech lab under way at a site near the Cambridgeside Galleria to a
multi-family project to replace the burned-out Faces disco at
Alewife. The city’s image as an innovator gives it the freedom
to innovate architecturally. The odd-angle, funhouse-style
Stata Center at MIT is the best-known example. The trend is
seen as well in the interesting “skins” on smaller projects around
Kendall Square. The office sector is as stalled in Cambridge
as it is everywhere, with average rents for the city’s 25 million
square feet of space no higher than they were in 1998, according to
data of CoStar, which surveys markets nationally. But
Cambridge has an alternative. Wherever offices are even
remotely accessible to Kendall Square, conversion to biotech lab
space is a possibility. One such conversion is underway for
the 82,000-square-foot building at 1030 Massachusetts Avenue.
Rent control was a hallmark of Cambridge. The city stood by
rent control longer than any other Greater Boston community, until
controls were disabled at the state level in the 1990s. Rent
control was Cambridge’s statement about commitment to its low-income
population. Helping those with low incomes was rent control’s
intent, if not its effect. During rent control, Cambridge was
a two-tiered city, with high-end houses side by side with
deteriorated, rent-controlled buildings. Today, the city’s
housing stock is largely done over. Cambridge was once
ridiculed as “The People’s Republic.” Now it bears the name
While the rest of the nation races to cut taxes and public services,
Cambridge goes the other way. It calls new taxes in on itself.
The Community Preservation Act is an opt-in tax. The CPA was
originally designed as a means to save open space. Cambridge
has little open space that is not protected, but it opted into the
CPA anyway. Boston did not. Cambridge uses its CPA funds
for historic preservation and for affordable housing.
Cambridge is highly protective of its character. It is not a
fast-food-friendly place. It was unable to stand in the way as
Harvard Square slowly lost its character. It does all it can
now to prevent that from happening again, city-wide.
The hardest part of being Cambridge today is to regain its soul.
It lost rent control. It lost Harvard Square to franchises
that could be in any mall, anywhere. It has built a new city
at Kendall Square, only to find that the new city lacks a soul.
No night clubs, and not many folkie coffee houses. At five,
everybody goes home. Over the course of 30 years, Cambridge
has gained plenty in terms of affluence. But in the process,
it has misplaced something that money can’t buy.
Cambridge has plenty to be thankful for. What it’s got is what
the world wants. What it’s got is knowledge. In the 21st
century, that may be more valuable than anything.