Alexandria Real Estate Equities’ stated plans for a “megacampus” in East Watertown should be a wake-up call to Gov. Charlie Baker and state legislative leaders. 

The life sciences real estate giant recently paid $130 million for the 18-acre Watertown Mall property. While a definite development timeline for the site remains in flux – Target’s long-term lease on the site constrains the REIT’s moves – and executives remain relatively taciturn about their plans, it’s clear from the purchase price alone that big changes are in store. 

What’s also clear is that the MBTA has neither adequate service to handle the crush of development headed towards Watertown and Allston, nor the capacity to see these kinds of developments coming down the road. 

Transit service in the area consists of a handful of relatively frequent bus routes and the relatively new – by MBTA standards – Boston Landing commuter rail station. But despite indications building for years that East Watertown was in the running to be the next big hot spot in life science development, the agency appears to have given only limited thought to addressing the challenge. Its most recent effort, a 2016 study, nibbled around the edges of the problem with recommendations like adding bicycle lanes and giving buses priority at traffic signals in town – laudable moves, to be sure, but both inadequate to the scale of the problem.  

The same story was repeated at other development hot spots in the most recent real estate boom in part because the T was stripped of its long-term planning office in 2009. The move was well-intentioned at the time – create a centralized office to track future transit needs statewide – but it’s clear that in the process the transit agency developed a bad case of myopia. 

The legislature has a good opportunity at hand to start fixing this by adding a long-range planning office to compliment the T’s existing service planners when it picks a new oversight body for the agency. These staffers should be the ones constantly talking to local officials about their needs and real estate executives about trends, plans and developing hot spots that will need service.  

Without staff to develop adequate options for MBTA leaders and an agile, entrepreneurial mindset among those leaders, it will be next to impossible to respond to changes in a world whose pace of change is getting faster all the time or responsibly advocate for the resources to fuel new or improved service. 

As we have argued in this space before, electric vehicles will be bought far too slowly by the general public, will add significant burden on our electrical grid, raise serious equity concerns and will do nothing to abate our traffic problem. If the commonwealth is at all serious about meeting its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, it must get serious about planning for more and better public transit.  

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Watertown ‘Megacampus’ Should Ring Alarm Bells

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min