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 in Cambridge. 

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 Cambridge.

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 proudly. 

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.

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Eric Reenstierna Associates LLC is a real estate appraisal firm taking on valuation and consultation assignments in Greater Boston, Massachusetts and New England. Eric Reenstierna, MAI, is the office's principal and is a commercial real estate appraiser.


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