NEW BEDFORD — A plot extending roughly 300 feet along Rodney French Boulevard in the South End will be the site of the “innovation district” that Mayor Jon Mitchell announced last week during his State of the City address.
The land extends south toward the wastewater treatment plant for about 200 feet. While it’s not an overly large piece of land, the city believes it’s vital to the future of New Bedford.
“The idea would be to utilize city-owned land to create an environment in which people can live and and be close to research as well as business innovation opportunity,” Mitchell said.
Similar projects also labeled as “innovation districts” have popped up and are being constructed around the world. Mitchell and City Council President Joseph Lopes traveled to Pittsburgh last November to analyze its districts. They’ll travel to St. Louis in April.
“You can learn so much more by having the discussion with those who have gone through it,” Lopes said.
The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization that conducts research on new ideas for solving problems facing society, has provided Mitchell with research on innovation districts. The organization defines an “innovation districts” as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators.”
In this case, UMass Dartmouth’s SMAST facilities would anchor the district. Mitchell said the project won’t affect taxpayers, but instead will focus on private projects.
“By creating something that has these different elements you create that the whole idea of the innovative district,” dean of SMAST Steven Lohrenz said. “Its creating this multipurpose site with a lot of different elements and there is synergy that develops and makes it more attractive to people.”
Mitchell said the district is still years away, but the research and planning underway allowed him to announce it in last week’s State of the City.
No official plans exist for what the district could contain, but Mitchell suggested, like most around the world, it might include housing, business incubators and retail and dining opportunities.
“We want to be seen as a place where ideas can be generated and commercialized,” Mitchell said. “Those ideas are key in having an urban environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive.”
Mitchell pointed to the success of Christopher Rezendes and his Internet connectivity company, IoT Impact LABS, as past examples of innovation within the city.
This project is different in that includes SMAST, which already houses an a core of potential innovators students and professors.
“It’s a way for the city and university to expand on an already good partnership,” said Derek Santos, the executive director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council.
Mitchell said one of the issues surrounding SMAST is that many of the dwellings in the area of the two facilities are single-family homes, which limit the number of students and professors that can live near campus.
Mitchell, Lopes and Lohrenz agreed, though, any and all projects within the district would only be approved after consideration of the neighborhood.
“This is going have to be sized right,” Lohrenz said. “We’re not building the next strip mall. It has to be something that compliments the surroundings.”
According to the Brookings Institution, innovation districts can increase economic activity and help raise property values. The group states the increased revenue can be used to invest in infrastructure, public safety, affordable housing and schools.
Santos called Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the mother of all “innovation districts.” It combines growth around MIT and along with nearby institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital.
New Bedford’s district would be on a much smaller scale but contain the same ideas.
“You take academics and mix that with private sector,” Santos said. “And you create an environment that can be dynamic.”
Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonner.
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