David Clem: Building Genetown

Editor’s note: This post is part of our theme for March 2023, Science City, an exploration of the ways cities and science have interacted over time and around the world.

By Robin Wolfe Scheffler

On a warm, late-June evening in 1976, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council gathered to contemplate the unprecedented act of banning a scientific technique. Spectators packed its halls as eminent scientists from Harvard, MIT, and the National Institutes of Health answered pointed questions from councilors regarding the safety of recombinant DNA, a core technology of the modern biotechnology industry. One councilor, David Clem, skewered the gathered scientists for proposing to conduct this research in a heavily populated city, asking them instead of appealing to “’common sense’ safety measures they couldn’t use…other common sense that says you ought to do this kind of research where there aren’t so many people around?”[1]

David Clem asks if “common sense” would favor keeping recombinant DNA research from Cambridge at hearings considering banning the technique in 1976. Still from “Hypothetical Risk,” a video recording of the Cambridge City Council Hearings on recombinant DNA preserved by the MIT Archives.

This episode only lent support to forecasts that the future of science lay far outside of cities. After the Second World War, the industries of America’s “knowledge economy” migrated from city centers to fast-growing suburbs that promised their new class of educated workers a pleasant lifestyle. American urban centers, meanwhile, appeared mired in decline. Even the presence of Harvard and MIT, for example, could not keep the growing computing industry from decamping from Cambridge for the Acadian communities that ringed Boston along Route 128.[2]

Just as these prognostications reached a crescendo in the early 1980s, biotechnology firms flocked to Cambridge. And David Clem became the single largest developer of biotechnology research real estate east of the Mississippi by focusing on land within the city.[3] Today Cambridge sits at the center of the densest biotechnology cluster in the world.[4] Indeed, the movement of the biotechnology industry back to urban centers heralded the re-urbanization of the knowledge economy. Entrepreneurs, universities, and businesses started to value urban proximity rather than avoid it.[5]

While historians of the knowledge economy have assumed the mobility of scientific knowledge, the fact that the biotechnology industry clustered in places like Cambridge emphasizes that we should also consider the factors that favored anchoring science in cities and the consequences that this had for cities themselves. Given the risky odds faced by companies in the early biotechnology industry, setting research laboratories within walking distance of universities allowed companies to draw on reserves of tacit knowledge provided by these communities, as well as assure their researchers that their choice of a career in commercial science was not a departure from the norms and values of academic science.[6]

Correspondingly, the spatial relationships created by biotechnology companies were an integral part of the new industry’s capacity to produce biological innovations and assure investors of its future value.[7] Yet, these companies possessed neither the financial resources nor the political acumen to fashion spaces for themselves in the dense fabric of cities such as Cambridge.[8] The creation of spaces for biotechnology hinged on the intervention of agents who could navigate the circumstances of their cities—political alliances, zoning regulations, and activists. This was the province not of petri dishes and test tubes but of real estate development.

Real estate brokers and developers worked in the background to create the conditions for the biotechnology industry’s operations. In the process, the growth of biotechnology became intwined with broader questions of who would determine the future of postindustrial cities, such as Cambridge, and how the costs borne by local communities to accommodate the industry would be balanced with its broader social and financial promises.

David Clem’s career shows how the creation of space for biotechnology and debates over who could claim a right to define the form of their cities became entangled. Clem arrived in Cambridge in 1971 from Texas by way of Dartmouth to study urban planning at MIT. Clem and his wife purchased a former commune in the industrial neighborhood of Cambridgeport and soon founded a group, “Humans Against Large Trucks,” to protest the use of the neighborhood’s streets by trucks to traverse the gap between highways in the north and the Massachusetts Turnpike to the south. Articulating a theme later taken up by opponents of biotechnology real estate development, Clem lambasted the idea that a single neighborhood should bear pollution and noise for the convenience of deliveries across the region.[9]

David Clem (back row, third from right) on the 1976 Cambridge City Council. “New City Council,” photo by Ed Pacheco, Cambridge Historical Commission Photo Morgue Collection, Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online.

Clem moved from neighborhood protection to neighborhood restoration, taking an active role in Homeowner’s Rehab, a group that restored homes in Cambridgeport and the adjacent Riverside neighborhood—both of which faced encroachment by MIT and Harvard.[10] These connections drew Clem into alliance with a coalition of left-wing groups in Cambridge who backed his candidacy for city council in 1975 as part of a slate of activist councilors. Clem’s skepticism of recombinant DNA reflected the concern he had displayed for protecting the interests of Cambridge’s communities in the face of its declining industrial base and rapid university expansion.[11]

David Clem returned to Cambridge in the early 1980s as a real estate developer. In doing so, he sought to take advantage of the knowledge he had of both the city’s politics and neighborhoods to create research and development space—a prospect that daunted other developers. The “anarchic” commercial real estate market of Cambridge seemed too risky for many large commercial developers. Despite the presence of MIT and Harvard, it appeared too risky to build expensive quarters for “footloose” high technology firms just as likely to choose the suburbs.[12]

Clem and his partners operated as “venture capitalist” real estate developers, taking advantage of their intimate knowledge of the city. As Alexia Yates has recently suggested, we may think of real estate developers as informal urban sociologists—attempting to predict how the social habits and worlds of their possible tenants will shape their spatial preferences. The sociology of innovation that Clem perceived focused on the desire of small companies to be within walking distance of universities in Cambridge, breaking with the suburban research parks favored by most developers, who assumed that knowledge was footloose. Furthermore, Clem pursued a strategy different from that of other developers active in East Cambridge, such as the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority or MIT. Whereas these organizations worked to reshape space by buying former factory sites and leveling the land for redevelopment, Clem and his partners drew on the tactics he had practiced in Homeowner’s Rehab. By buying devalued industrial buildings in East Cambridge on the border of MIT and rehabilitating them rather than demolishing them, Clem and his partners offered discounted leases on desirable spaces to small companies.[13]

This strategy traded heavily on the specific knowledge of Cambridge that Clem and his partners possessed. Yet they initially struggled to convince major banks that their strategy was a creditworthy risk. They had to mortgage their own homes to finance their first project, the conversion of a former Boston Woven Hose manufacturing facility in East Cambridge into a complex of office and laboratory space known as “One Kendall Square.” The development soon hosted the densest cluster of biotechnology start-ups on the East Coast.[14]

Boston Woven Hose factory postcard from the late nineteenth century showing the complex of buildings that was later developed into One Kendall Square. “Boston Woven Hose and Rubber,” HistoryCambridge.org

Identifying tenants and financing construction were only the start of the challenges Clem navigated. As One Kendall Square grew, so too did demand for parking spaces, a feature of the urban geography of biotechnology. While biotechnology firms were happy to sit in industrial East Cambridge near universities, their scientists still preferred to live in the suburbs, commuting to work by car. Expanding parking was essential to the long-term value of the laboratory space Clem and his partners sought to build. However, neighbors objected to the traffic and pollution brought by these commuters. Using his knowledge of city politics, Clem engaged in a spirited battle to successfully construct a towering parking garage.[15] Clem also worked with other East Cambridge property owners to defeat efforts by activists to place limits on the density of development in the neighborhood, an important step towards allowing the further expansion of biotechnology laboratories.[16]

Although Clem became adept at navigating the local politics necessary to develop laboratory space for biotechnology firms, his partnership could not survive changes in the economic environment that provided construction financing. Clem and his associates went further afield for loans to finance successive stages of their development, including new spaces for genomics research. However, in 1993 Clem and his partners declared bankruptcy when they could not make payments to their primary creditor, the insurer Aetna.[17]

Clem sold his interest in the One Kendall Square development and moved his family to New Hampshire. He appeared to be done with Cambridge. However, in New Hampshire he met a representative of the Lyme Timber Company at a parent-teacher association meeting. Lyme had expressed interest in branching out from timberland to commercial real estate, and Clem convinced them that his intimate knowledge of Cambridge could help them invest in laboratory space. After the turbulence of the 1980s, Clem stressed that Lyme could profit by investing in biotechnology as “an industry” rather than seeking to lease to a handful of companies.[18]  

Clem picked a ten-acre parcel in East Cambridge owned by the Com/Energy utility company as the site for Lyme’s development. He envisioned hundreds of thousands of square feet of laboratories on this land as part of “Cambridge Research Park,” a complex close enough to MIT that someone walking from the university “can’t really tell where they enter our site and where they exit it.”[19] However, the location was the only desirable feature of this property—it had been used as a coal gasification plant earlier in the century, and the byproducts of these activities had infused the property’s soil with a stew of potential carcinogens to a depth of twenty feet.[20]

The scale of this project and the need to remediate toxic land would have been beyond the financial capacity of local developers. However, the Lyme Property Company represented a new means of financing laboratory space. Rather than seeking loans and making payments, it raised money by operating as a real estate investment trust—investors purchased shares of the future rental revenues generated by the development. Investors could easily trade these shares like other stocks or bonds.[21] The locational advantages for biotechnology in East Cambridge provided the basis for raising $400 million for the development from investors interested in diversifying their portfolios rather than immediate creditworthiness—a tide of global investment that washed away contaminated soil and other building challenges.[22]

Here again, however, the value promised by Cambridge Research Park clashed with the hopes of residents of East Cambridge. Residents hoped that the Com/Energy parcel, one of the last large tracts of open land in the neighborhood, might be converted into a public park. At hearings on the proposal before the Cambridge Planning Board in November 1998, the number of people speaking against the development was “substantially greater” than those speaking in favor of it. Their comments emphasized that the construction of a large complex provided “no public benefits at a location that would best be used for public purposes.”[23]

Activists and community groups filed numerous appeals and suits to block the development, but backed by the resources of Lyme, Clem engaged in a bare-knuckle legal dispute with those who he dismissed as “zoning gadflies” and threatened to take individual Cambridge citizens to court for damages stemming from delays to the project caused by their objections.[24] Even as these disputes dragged on, Clem and Lyme announced that Genzyme and other biotechnology companies had already leased all of the planned laboratory space.[25]

In 2005 Lyme sold its portfolio of biotechnology real estate to Biomed Realty, a national life sciences REIT that was later purchased by the Blackstone Group as a class of “alternative” assets to stocks. The billions of dollars invested in development through these channels has underwritten the explosion of laboratory space for biotechnology in Cambridge as well as other urban clusters.[26]

Over the last fifteen years, the conversion of industrial East Cambridge into space for biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies has continued apace. Indeed, the other major private investor in Cambridge biotechnology real estate, Alexandria Properties, has gone so far as to fund and support biotechnology startups themselves as a means of seeding future demand for their real estate.[27] The development of laboratory space only accelerated during the start of the COVID pandemic; laboratory research was one activity that could not easily be performed remotely, and credit for construction was cheap. The billions of dollars of investment that flowed into Cambridge, refashioning it from an industrial city into a city for science, did so along channels carved out by local agents such as Clem.

One Kendall Square in February 2023, displaying the signage of Alexandria Real Estate, a life sciences real estate investment trust that now owns this complex and many others in Cambridge and in other urban biotechnology clusters.  Photo by Robin Wolfe Scheffler.

However, it is also worth asking what these channels have steered development away from. The growth of Cambridge as a biotechnology mecca and life sciences real estate nexus has occurred alongside long-standing concerns for the affordability and accessibility of the biomedical innovations it promises. These take on new meaning in Cambridge, where the neighborhoods closest to biotechnology developments responsible for breakthroughs against COVID also suffered from the highest levels of inequality and pandemic mortality.[28] The patterns of urban transformation that investment in biomedical research as a commodity encourages may have succeeded in making spaces congenial for biotechnology research, but the question that Clem raised as an activist in the 1970s remains: should a single community bear so many of the costs for scientific research when they miss the full measure of its benefits?

Robin Wolfe Scheffler is an Associate Professor in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He is the author of A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine (2019). This post draws on work he is conducting for his second manuscript in preparation on the urban history of biotechnology, Genetown: The Greater Boston Area and the Rise of Biotechnology in America, supported by the MIT Levitan Prize, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Archives, and the National Science Foundation. He may be found on twitter @CancerHistorian.

Featured image (at top): “Aerial View of Downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston” (2019). Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Clem quote from Cambridge City Council 1976 Recombinant DNA Hearings Transcript, p. 104. MIT Archives and Special Collections, MC 0100 (Oral History on the Recombinant DNA Controversy). Science studies scholars have discussed the recombinant DNA regulation episode in Cambridge as a touchstone for the confrontation of expert and public opinions of risk. The episode also draws attention to questions of the governance of science. Sheldon Krimsky, Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), 298–305; Everett Mendelsohn, “‘Frankenstein at Harvard’: The public politics of recombinant DNA research,” in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1984), 317–35; John Durant, “‘Refrain from Using the Alphabet’: How Community Outreach Catalyzed the Life Sciences at MIT,” in Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, ed. David Kaiser (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 145–63.

[2] This was a famous prediction by Daniel Bell, who did much to popularize the idea of the “knowledge economy” as well as “knowledge work.” Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 371–86. Recent work in urban history has taken a more critical look at the suburbanization of the knowledge economy, such as Alex Sayf Cummings, Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020); Patrick S. Vitale, “Making Science Suburban: The Suburbanization of Industrial Research and the Invention of ‘Research Man,’” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49, no. 12 (Dec. 1, 2017): 2813–34, https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X17734855.

[3] See biography of David Clem for board of Trustees at Berklee School of Music: https://www.berklee.edu/people/david-clem.

[4] Anonymous, “Clusterluck; The Biotechnology Industry,” The Economist, Jan. 16, 2016.

[5] Sharon Zukin, The Innovation Complex: Cities, Tech, and the New Economy (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[6] On the cultural tensions between academic molecular biology and biotechnology in its early years see Nicolas Rasmussen, Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 94–100.

[7] This is the argument I develop at length in my current book project, Genetown, drawing on the concept of productive space suggested by Henri Lefebvre. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, 1st edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992), 60–65. This approach has been articulated in a different context by David Schley, Steam City: Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 7–8.

[8] Safety concerns were only the start of these challenges. A comparative review of different cities’ reactions may be found in Maryann Feldman and Nichola Lowe, “Consensus from Controversy: Cambridge’s Biosafety Ordinance and the Anchoring of the Biotech Industry,” European Planning Studies 16, no. 3 (Apr. 2008): 395–410, https://doi.org/10.1080/09654310801920532.

[9] Lisa Kocian, “Kendall Developer Says He’s No Phantom Menace,” Cambridge Chronicle 153, no. 19 (May 20, 1999), 1, 12-13; exact address from “Record City Budget,” Cambridge Chronicle 30 Mar. 1972: 7; “HALT Will Stop Trucks on Prospect Street Tonight,” Cambridge Chronicle, Sept. 14, 1972, 5.  This effort was ultimately stymied  in the late 1970s because the State and the turnpike authority would not approve alternate routes that took trucks through the tunnels that connected Boston to the Massachusetts turnpike. Clem groused, “we don’t need any fancy reroutes” if the turnpike authorities would “forget about [their] obligations to investors,” allowing trucks deemed too dangerous for tunnels to instead drive on Cambridge’s streets. “State, Boston Agreement Needed in Truck Reroute, “Cambridge Chronicle Nov. 24, 1977, 12.

[10] “David Clem: City Council Candidate,” Cambridge Chronicle, Apr. 10, 1975, 3.

[11] Mac Herrling, “The Texan from Western Avenue,” Cambridge Chronicle, Jan. 8, 1976, 1. On the process of deindustrialization in Cambridge after the Second World War and its consequences for university-community relationships see chapter five of LaDale C. Winling, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

[12] Notes of Cambridgeport Blue Ribbon Committee on presentation of Barrett from Boston Properties prepared by Roger Boothe (Director of Urban Design) Apr. 28, 1986. MIT Archives AC 408 Box 8 “Blue Ribbon General Information.”

[13] These savings were also a function of tax credits from the 1982 Economic Recovery Tax Act, which provided subsidies of up to 25 percent for rehabilitated buildings. Julia Viskanta, “Adaptive Use in Boston: A Developer’s Perspective” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 30–31, 34–35. Alexia Yates, Real Estate and Global Urban History, Elements in Global Urban History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 16.

[14] Viskanta, “Adaptive Use in Boston,” 25, 29. Middlesex Registry of Deeds Book 14341, Page 25, Document # 60710362, recorded July 2, 1981.

[15] Laura Beck, “Wolfe Urges Revoking Permit for Garage,” Cambridge Chronicle Sept. 29, 1988, 1, 7.

[16] Steve Adams, “The Man Who Built Kendall Square and Walked Away,” Banker and Tradesman July 22, 2022. https://bankerandtradesman.com/the-man-who-built-kendall-square-and-walked-away/.

[17] John H. Kennedy and Jerry Ackerman, “Two Major Developments in Cambridge File Chap. 11,” The Boston Globe, Mar. 10, 1993.

[18] Bill Archambeault, “Executive Profile: David Clem, Ground Floor in the Biotech Boom,” The Boston Business Journal, May 30, 2003.

[19] Lyme’s proposal included 1,275,000 square feet. Jerimiah Liebowitz, “Massive Plans for Vacant Lot at Kendall,” Cambridge Chronicle Sept. 3, 1998. Also see Middlesex Registry of Deeds Sitemap for Lyme Properties (1998) and 2002 AUL Notice at Book 25298, Page 64. See also https://www.mass.gov/regulations/830-CMR-6338q1-massachusetts-brownfields-tax-credit#-1-statement-of-purpose-outline-of-topics.

[20] Sanborn Map Company, Fire Insurance Map of Cambridge (1900), Sheet 32.

[21] H. Lee Murphy, “Who’s Behind Biotech?,” National Real Estate Investor 45, no. 6 (June 2003): 21–22. To date there has been only one published study on the history of the land securitization process through REITs, see Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1, 2015): 75–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144214551721.

[22] Giles Barrie, “Scottish Widows Ties up $400m US Scheme,” Property Week, Nov. 17, 2000.

[23] City of Cambridge Planning Board Final Development Plan Decision PB#141 (Apr. 7, 1999), 9.

[24] Jeffrey Krasner, “Developer Files Suit against Activists Fighting Boston-Area Project,” Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, May 31, 2001. See also Robert L. Green [Lyme properties] to Jason Cortell [Jason M. Cortell and Associates, environmental engineer] Nov. 19, 2001. Cambridge Planning Board PUD #141 files, Correspondence.

[25] Richard Kindleberger, “Genzyme to Anchor Cambridge Complex,” The Boston Globe, Nov. 10, 2000.

[26] Michael Hoban, “Alexandria’s Spree Points to Allure of Area Biotech,” Boston Business Journal, Oct. 19, 2005, https://www.bizjournals.com/boston/stories/2005/10/24/focus5.html. On the disposition of Biomed Realty with Blackstone see https://www.biomedrealty.com/about.

[27] https://www.massbio.org/members/alexandria-launchlabs/.

[28] Hanna Kreuger, “Two Tales of One City: The Port Sits in the Shadow of Moderna and Pfizer,” Boston Globe, Feb. 27, 2021.

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