Planning Board Approves Having Biotech Companies at Arsenal Yards

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Boylston Properties

A rendering of the new proposal for Building A at Arenal Yards.

Boylston Properties

A rendering of the new design for Building A at Arenal Yards, including the entrance which will be used by shoppers and for deliveries and removal of items from biotech labs that will be located on the second floor of the building.

The Planning Board gave its approval to allow biotech labs to be located on the second floor of the historic building in the former Arsenal Mall where Marshall’s is located. 

The proposal by Boylston Properties, the developer of Arsenal Yards, had been delayed a month because there were questions about whether labs where biotech research should be located in the same building where retail and restaurants will be located. There was concern that the Town of Watertown did not have the same local safeguards as other area communities.

Wednesday night the Planning Board heard from the developers, who also brought in consultants who work with biotech companies and outfit buildings for such lab use.

Mark Deschenes from Boylston Properties said his firm did a study of biotech companies in the area and that there are already at least 23 biotech companies in Watertown, with most in East Watertown, and a few on the Westside. He added that there are several examples of biotech companies sharing buildings with retail and other businesses, and that are located near residential buildings. Some areas where these combinations can be seen include at Fan Pier in Boston, and at Alewife and Kendall Square in Cambridge

Biotech has been a key industry for the Greater Boston economy for a number of years, said resident Curtis Whitney.

“Biotech is a leading force, an economic driver for the Greater Boston Area,” Whitney said. “It is a trend we don’t want to pas up on, and certainly don’t want to discourage.”

Resident Elodia Thomas, one of the people who raised concerns in Augusts, said she is not against having biotech companies in town, but she wants Watertown to have the same rules and oversight as surrounding communities, including Cambridge, which has the most biotech firms.

“No body is opposing biotech,” Thomas said. “We need to do it right.”

Some of the concern was curtailed by the Town Council, which voted on Tuesday to have the Board of Health come up with rules and create oversight for biotech companies. Still concerns remained, including with the plan at Arsenal Yards.

Council Asks Board of Health to Create Rules, Oversight of Biotech Companies

The biotech labs would be located on the second floor of Building A, in the area where the food court and Sports Authority had been located. A number of people worried about the delivery of supplies and removal of waste from the labs.

The plan calls for deliveries, pickups and waste removal to come through the entrance on the front of the building, which will be located near the doors where Chipotle is now located.

Deliveries and removals would be scheduled between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., before most stores open. But some places, such as places selling coffee, would be open then and some deliveries will be late, acknowledged Boylston Properties Principal Bill McQuillan.

Residents worried about the public interacting with these deliveries and pickups.

“I think there should be completely different loading dock so all biotech materials are moving in and out safely,” said resident Mia Lieberman. “And for public not to be alarmed with pretty large things going in and out.”

Caroline Slater, a consultant from Safety Partners, said that packages coming and going to the labs will be safely and securely packaged.

“The way waste is packaged and material comes in, it’s not like it is open,” Slater said. “It has to follow the Department of Transportation regulation for transport on a public road, so nothing comes out until it is packaged and leak proof. So you can turn it upside down and nothing would come out. Same thing with material coming in.”

Slater added that while some are concerned that state and federal regulations won’t be enforced, the companies must follow rules in order to operate. She said a company cannot generate hazardous waste without following the MassDEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations.

“A waste hauler will not pick up without a (hazardous waste) generator number from EPA,” Slater said. “The same thing for biological waste. There is a sanitary code in Massachusetts.”

Another “check and balance,” Slater said, is that other companies will not do work with a firm that is not safe.

Chris Leary, a consultant from Jacobs Engineering, said that he has seen other buildings where there is only one entrance for people and deliveries, including in facilities located in Cambridge.

Another concern is the air and fumes being removed from labs, and how they are vented from the building into the air outside. Chemical hoods in the labs will remove fumes, which will then be vented out of small chimneys with a conical hat on top, Leary said.

One of the conditions of approval put on the building by the Town’s Planning Department requires a disbursement study of the air being vented from the labs. It requires the exhaust to be directed upward so the prevailing winds will not carry the fumes into a fresh air intake, open windows, or pedestrian areas, said Watertown Senior Planner Gideon Schreiber.

Another proposed condition would have required the companies to follow local, state and federal guidelines for rDNA (Recombinant DNA), which is research where genetic materials is used. Some members of the Planning Board and the public said it sounds like that is the only type of research that would be allowed.

Other communities also have limits of BioSafety Levels (ranging from level 1 to 4, with 1 the least hazardous). Schreiber said Cambridge allows up to BioSafety Level 3, but at Arsenal Yards it is limited to BioSafety Level 2 or below.

Planning Board Chairman Jeffrey Brown said he believed the Town’s Planning Department staff could come up with the appropriate language and he did not want to hold up the proposal for another month.

In August, Planning Board members said they did not like the design of the areas containing the mechanical systems, which were located on the roof of the back side of the building, facing Arsenal Park. Particularly they did not like the fact that it came out to the end of the roofline and looked like big brick boxes.

The new designs presented Wednesday have the mechanical areas pushed about five feet off the eave of the roof, said architect Laura Portney from PCA. While there will still be a screen around the exhaust vents, fans and other items, it is propose to be a lighter color (closer to the color of the orange roof) and will have small holes to soften the look.

Planning Board member Janet Buck said the design is an improvement.

“I am the one that was pushing for alternative that was lighter looking,” Buck said. “I’m happy with this. I expected something coming to ground but fact that you have taken it all up and freed the facade — I am impressed.”

The sound from the mechanical area concerned Planning Board member Gary Shaw.

“I hope you will tackle that, and come up with something so that the park will be a peaceful place to hang out,” Shaw said.

McQuillan said that the developers also want to make sure there is no noise coming from the building.

“We have two outdoor patios. We want people to enjoy that space. That is valuable space,” McQuillan said. “If there’s a din it wont be very valuable. We don’t want a tenant to say we can’t use outdoor space because there is a din from the mechanical space.”

The change of allowed uses, to include biotech labs, was approved by the Planning Board.

3 thoughts on “Planning Board Approves Having Biotech Companies at Arsenal Yards

  1. Not Good. No mention of how waste, disposed into the drain system, will be
    monitored and treated. This is an area where both accidental radioactive waste
    as well as accidental biohazzard waste can be introduced into the Town waste water
    system. Will it be monitored and/or filtered?

    Who will insure that these labs use best practices with the handling of radioactive
    materials, hazardous chemicals and biochemical waste at the bench? They should
    be monitored on an unannounced basis. But which knowledgeable person(s) will
    do this monitoring?

    Since we do not have in place firm guidelines and careful monitoring of the labs
    that are in place the fact that they exist is worrisome, not reassuring.

    • Biotech companies do not operate in a free for all fashion that so many people seem to think. They are regulated on a federal level and can be inspected without notice. If you mess up you are shut down. Please do your research so that you aren’t spreading false information that needlessly frightens the community.

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