To say that the Atrium Mall is dying is like saying that John Edwards has an image problem. It just doesn’t do the problem justice.
What do you do with a mall that has layer upon layer of parking underneath and a mediocure position on Route 9? What about an Innovation Center?
Newton hasn’t been great at attracting the same buzz for its startup scene as Boston and Cambridge. I know you’re probably asking, does Newton even have a startup scene? Well, yes! Kind of.
I attended a presentation a few months back in which the panelists talked with animated passion about the great things happening in Cambridge surrounding Kendall Square, and got noticeably excited when people talked about Boston’s burgeoning Innovation District. Innovation thrives in cases of density. It’s why urban centers remain attractive to startups.
But when given a “lightening round” and asked to name how innovative some of the region’s companies were, those listed as being on the upswing were all in the western burbs. Names like A123, BigBelly Solar, iRobot, Kayak and Trip Advisor came to mind. At least two of those companies are in Newton. None are in Cambridge or Boston.
I used to work with TenMarks, an education startup. They landed in Chestnut Hill. When I asked the co-founder why, he said that the access was good, it allowed some people to drive while others could take the T, and he lived in Newton. He didn’t need to be going to Cambridge during rush hour every day, but if he needed to be there for a meeting it wasn’t a problem.
That’s the same logic that drove a lot of companies out to Waltham. So, what does this have to do with the Atrium Mall? Well, it’s a 15 minute walk from the T station in Chestnut Hill, not great, but not terrible either. It has underground parking, perfect for New England Winters, it’s only a short walk from a soon-to-exist shopping plaza that should give the young workers a place to go when they’re hungry.
Also, the idea of turning an unused mall into a place of business isn’t all that crazy. Rackspace did it for its headquarters. Imagine the Atrium with a top floor gym, the walkway turned into a padded track. Offices, cubicles, conference rooms, lunchrooms, etc. can fill what had been stores. Also, the kitchens will give the food-based innovation concepts a place to try out new things. You can even leave the Cheesecake Factory right where it is.
The question is: how do we make it happen? Or is this just a situation of a building that will die, be torn down and turned into something else?