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'We Will Watch Your Dog': Boston Landlords, Politicians Seek Ways To Lure Workers Back To City

WS Development has installed several "parklets" on its properties in the Seaport. (Boston Seaport by WS Development)
WS Development has installed several "parklets" on its properties in the Seaport. (Boston Seaport by WS Development)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Roxana Chiu, who manages shared office space in Boston, says the prime location in Back Bay used to be enough to attract prospective tenants.

But since the pandemic, Chiu found she needs to offer new enticements. That includes a bike locker, an indoor garden and a renovated kitchen.

She's gone so far as letting people bring their dogs to work.

"We even tell them, 'If you need to run out for a meeting for an hour or two, we will watch your dog,'" said Chiu, cofounder of SnapSuites. "Dog sitting services — that's something we can do, as well."

After more than a year of remote work, many companies have discovered their employees can be productive anywhere. And many workers don't want to go back to the daily grind of commuting downtown.

That's leading some to to wonder whether expensive, congested cities like Boston are still worth the hassle. And it's yielded creative efforts — from pet care to vibrant art displays — to draw people back.

Chiu's goal is to make the SnapSuites office feel more like home, because that's where many people have grown comfortable working. Some tenants are renting less space, but others are signing new leases, including a biotech company that recently committed to a seven-year term.

"Everything during the pandemic negotiating was a lot more difficult," Chiu said. "Not so much the price. I think it was all the uncertainty. It's hard to predict where we will be in six months or a year."

A popular guess is that many companies will have a mix of employees working at home and in an office.

That's what Artaic Chief Executive Ted Acworth expects. His firm uses robots to make large mosaics and had been part of a business boom in Boston's Seaport District. The pandemic prompted him to ask, "Does it even make sense to stay close into the city?"

Artaic ultimately left the Seaport but stayed within Boston. With many companies reconsidering the city's value, Acworth says he got a good deal in Charlestown.

"We knew that, during the pandemic, commercial leasing is a very favorable market for companies looking for leases," he said. "So, we just seized the moment."

More than one-third of Massachusetts companies may reduce office space as the pandemic wanes, according to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Keeping business in Boston is a stated priority for all five major candidates in the city's mayoral race. John Barros, Boston's former economic development chief, worries commercial tax revenue could shrink, if city leaders don't act.

"It's going to put the burden over to the residential tax base, and you'll see a residential tax increase," Barros said. "This is a big, big problem for our city and something we should take very seriously."

A property tax hike would give residents another reason to eye the suburbs. City Counciler Annissa Essaibi-George, another mayoral candidate, says the city should consider propping up bars, restaurants and coffee shops — amenities that could make people want to live and work here.

"There may be some grants that we have to give — just pure cash — to these businesses to help them get through what will likely be a full year of recovery," she said.

Barros and some other candidates also say cash assistance may be necessary.

And if beer money doesn't do the trick, perhaps a giant, rainbow squirrel or 2,000 flamingos will. Those are not invasive species but rather two examples of public art installations brought to Boston by WS Development, which owns 3.8 million square feet of commercial and residential real estate in the Seaport.

A passerby stops the take a photo of the flamingos on Boston's Seaport Common. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A giant, rainbow squirrel and a flock of plastic flamingos are among the public art installations brought to Boston by WS Development. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Adding some sculptures may seem like a little thing, but Vice President Todd Norley says it's one way his company is trying to give the neighborhood a magnetic look and feel.

"I can't think of a better example than a beautiful piece of art," he said. "Having that as a showpiece of a neighborhood really helps identify the place and exude that vibe — and amplifies it, in a way."

Norley says the idea is to make people and business want to be in Boston, even if they don't have to be.

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Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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