Boston’s CambridgeSide gets $30 million worth of love

SCT Magazine

Boston-based New England Development is wrapping up the $30 million renovation of its CambridgeSide Galleria, one of the first major urban malls in the U.S., built in 1990. Completion of the revived mall, renamed simply CambridgeSide, is set for this month. The project comprises about 100 shops and is the centerpiece of a 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use development mere minutes from downtown Boston, in East Cambridge, one of the world’s largest high-tech and biotech innovation districts.

Its relatively advanced age notwithstanding, the mall has remained a popular shopping destination, drawing some 7 million visitors annually. But New England Development could see that, absent a major overhaul, the mall risked becoming a mere shell of its former self, owing to its circa 1980s architecture and to the rapid gentrification of the surrounding area.

The city of Cambridge was long dependent on industrial development, and as high-tech companies like Google and HubSpot began moving in, the mall found it increasingly difficult to keep up with their cutting-edge persona. Manny Steiner, a New England Development vice president, recalls confronting that realization several years ago through the blunt words of a prospective tenant he was then walking through the mall. “He said: ‘Manny, the ’80s called, and they want their brass back!’ You had these beautiful state-of-the-art buildings and new, high-end condominiums, along with a very sophisticated customer — and the mall did not match that,” Steiner said. “CambridgeSide was an important factor in bringing the eastern part of Cambridge into what it is today, but we needed to bring the mall up to speed to where the neighborhood had gone.”

Among the first steps was a branding overhaul — complete with an updated logo, more-eye-catching signage, vibrant colors, upgraded marketing materials and a program of events, both at the mall itself and at its waterfront park. The name had to go too, Steiner says. “The Galleria name had a lot of power to it, and there were a lot of malls that opened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that carried that name,” he said. “We did believe that the Galleria name harkened back to another era in mall development, and it also was not consistent with what the mall is today.”

The architectural features underwent no minor upgrade. “We’ve essentially touched every surface, anything that is visible,” said Steiner. Light tile featuring a textured pattern that evokes the ebb and flow of the nearby Charles River has replaced the old granite floors, for one thing. Transparent railings now stand in for the former brass ones, creating more-open sight lines, and seamless glass helps showcase the storefronts. LED lighting will yield energy savings of 30 to 40 percent, according to Steiner. Seating areas with sofas and chairs have been added, and the Wi-Fi network uses fiber-optic cables. Exterior bistro seating and gathering spots along the banks of the Lechmere Canal help connect the mall to the river.

This combination of rebranding and redevelopment helped set the stage for a repositioning of the tenant mix. In July the mall’s Apple store reopened inside a 10,000-square-foot space. “It’s one of the top Apple stores in the market, and that’s a testament to the customer there,” said Steiner. “Getting that investment and long-term commitment from Apple had a lot to do with us making a mall that, from an environmental standpoint, was relevant to them.”

Among the new tenants is Superdry, a U.K.-based branded-apparel retailer. “It’s a unisex product and has a good international dimension to it, which really appeals to our diverse customer base,” said Steiner. That base includes not only tourists but also doctoral students from nearby MIT and Harvard as well as tech workers. “It’s really the identity of Cambridge, and it’s the identity of our mall, and Superdry is a reflection of that,” he said. “Obviously, our investment into the mall was very important to them, [as was] positioning it towards … more of a Millennial customer: highly educated, worldly, sophisticated, but also an urbanite — a city dweller who’s not necessarily looking to go buy luxury, but wants to have good, solid everyday wear.”

Understanding that evolving customer base was the key to this repositioning, Steiner says. “The reality is that with the Back Bay a mile and a half away and with the Seaport two miles away, we can’t be all things to everyone,” Steiner said. “From a psychographic standpoint, we’re looking at experiential-based things. We need to capture all those experiences of a sophisticated, urban dweller.”

Then, too, the mall’s location has historical significance, and not only in a retail sense. “Where this mall sits, Lechmere Point, has been important since the American Revolution,” said Steiner. “It’s where the English landed on their march to Lexington and Concord. It was an important location then, and it is today.”

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