An opening for more retail in MetroWest?

WORCESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL – It’s home to the headquarters for Staples, Bose and uTest, as well as a Genzyme campus slated for an $80-million expansion.

But what’s there to do for the several thousand employees working near Exit 12 of the Massachusetts Turnpike once they finish work each day?

Not too much, according to real estate and planning experts.

The Framingham corporate hotspot is one of several in MetroWest that’s underserved by amenities such as banks, bars, coffee shops and dry cleaners, said Philip DeSimone, managing director for Jones Lang LaSalle in Boston.

“More companies would relocate out here if there was more to do in terms of retail,” DeSimone said. “If they put retail in those areas, people will come.”

The dearth of office-friendly retail dates back to traditional suburban zoning regulations, which separated residential, commercial and retail development and oriented all travel around the automobile, said Russell Preston, founder of the Boston urban design firm Principle Group.

Some cities and towns are still reluctant to relax those rules, fearing that additional retail would lead to more road congestion, DeSimone said.

Nonetheless, he expects more shops to locate near MetroWest commercial hubs in the coming years as the economy improves and municipalities recognize the benefit of more lenient zoning policies.

“Retailers tend to flock to other retailers,” he said. “Once they see other retailers going (to a location), they get jealous and go too.”

Integrating office and retail would clear up midday traffic by allowing workers to walk rather than drive to lunch, Preston said. Plus, it would make firms more productive by shortening the amount of time employees need to grab an off-site meal.

But many larger companies offer lunch at on-site cafeterias, DeSimone said, meaning a better bet might be a lounge offering drinks and appetizers to workers as they’re leaving for the day. A high-end grocery store could also thrive by making it easier for employees to buy dinner for their families before they hit the highway.

Mixed-use areas performed better during the recession and are less subject to market volatility, Preston said.

In search of something close by

Plus they create a steadier flow of parking demand, said Michelle Ciccolo, Hudson’s community development director. Workers and shoppers occupy the spaces during the day, and diners and residents fill them after hours, she said.

“Young people are not looking to live in places where they have long commutes,” Ciccolo said.

A smorgasbord of nearby amenities also makes it easier for companies to recruit and retain top talent, Preston said.

“Most of the businesses we talk to, retail is one of the first things they ask for,” said Tim Cummings, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation.

But it’s often tough to find office buildings and stores near one another.

The headquarters for BJ’s Wholesale Club and SimpliVity, as well as campuses for Genzyme and EMC, are right off Exits 23A and B of Interstate 495 in Westborough, but walkable retail options are very limited, DeSimone said.

And not a single retailer can be found at Exit 23C in Marlborough, despite the presence of Block Engineering headquarters and campuses of Hologic and EMC close by.

But that’s going to change within the next few years, thanks to a $250 million mixed-use project being developed at the former Hewlett-Packard site at Marlborough’s Forest Park.

“These large office parks offer an opportunity to think about using the land more efficiently and effectively,” Preston said.

Retail with offices?

The lack of nearby alternatives boosted the appeal of building 75,000 square feet of retail space within the 110-acre complex, said Atlantic Management president Joseph Zink, who is overseeing development of the Forest Park site.

“We saw that need,” Zink said. “The No. 1 issue in people’s lives is time.”

Employees in and around Forest Park will have access to a restaurant, coffee shop, small food court, bank, dry cleaners, health club and even a daycare center for workers or residents with young kids, Zink said.

Quest Diagnostics will be moving 1,200 employees from their Worcester and Cambridge facilities into a state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot lab at Forest Park in mid-2014. Zink said being part of a mixed-use development was appealing to Quest.

“You’re not going to duplicate Cambridge, but you have to bring some amenities people want,” he said.

It hasn’t been easy, though, to attract retailers to MetroWest in recent years.

The economic downturn and growth of online shopping have taken a big bite out of brick-and-mortar sales, prompting many retailers to downsize, said Marlene Aron, a senior associate broker with MetroWest Commercial Real Estate in Framingham.

“The Internet has taken some business off the streets,” she said.

However, locales popular with businesspeople, like restaurants or dry cleaners, have been largely immune to the online shift, Aron said.

Shops in exclusively corporate areas face the added challenge of having a reliable customer pool only on weekdays, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Such businesses can survive on Monday-to-Friday hours alone only if rents are low or weekday traffic is high, he said.

“It’s hard just to be in an office setting if you’re not getting traffic through there that’s seven days per week,” Hurst said.

This article originally appeared here.

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