Designing, launching + Operating A first-of-its-kind innovation center in the heart of Boston’s Innovation District
In many ways, District Hall is the most important project of my career so far, so it’s also the longest entry on this website.
Here’s the tl;dr: District Hall is a civic innovation center in the middle of Boston’s Innovation District, the product of a public-private partnership and the first building of its kind in the world. I was on the team for some of the early master plan work that led up to it; I was on the design team for District Hall when I was working at Hacin + Associates, and then I became the founding General Manager when the building opened in 2013. I managed the launch of the building and ran it for the first four years of operation, growing the team, raising money, and building systems and processes that would allow us to host 1000+ events and meetings per year and give away $1M every year in free and discounted space to entrepreneurs and social impact organizations.
For those interested in the longer story, I’m breaking it up into three chapters for you, dear readers, so you can choose your own adventure.
Chapter 1: Seaport Square & Boston’s Innovation District.
This is how I got involved in the project in the first place, and how I got a crash course in innovation district theory. This planning process is the reason District Hall exists.
Chapter 2: Designing District Hall.
This is the story of taking a barely formed idea and working with a team of experts to turn it into a flexible and inviting physical space.
Chapter 3: Running District Hall,
This is how I thought about building a team, a pricing model, operations systems and programs that would get the building to hit its economic and social impact goals.
Let’s dive in.
Seaport Square & Boston’s Innovation District
In 2010, the Seaport Square development was 23 acres of contiguous land smack in the middle of the new Seaport Innovation District. And the developer, Boston Global Investors, was in a tight spot. To get their financing back on track, they needed to show that the City was on board with their plans. And to get the City on board, they had to figure out what exactly an “innovation district” was.
That was my job.
Our firm was the local consultant on the masterplan, the ones that were supposed to understand the local government and the local politics. And I was the odd one in the office, a weird combination of designer / writer / graphic designer / too young to be super valuable on other projects / super enthusiastic and willing to dive in. So I got authorized for overtime and set out to figure out what an innovation district was, and how Seaport Square could be one.
That project was the beginning of everything for me. I scoured the entire internet, learned what economic development meant, learned about places like 22 @Barcelona and the Pearl District in Oregon, places where people were pulling together pieces of job growth theory and New Urbanist planning approaches, experimenting with zoning for job creation.
My colleagues and I created a vision document called “Seaport Square in the Innovation District”, a plan that made a case for new models of housing, new modes of transport, resources for entrepreneurs and researchers, and a vaguely-defined “innovation center” concept. We crossed our fingers, and sent it in.
And it worked. The City approved. The project moved forward.
I was forever changed by this. It was the first time in my life that I felt my own agency, the first time that I had a hand in something real, a feeling that my words and research could change the course of things.
I was hooked. I knew that me and the Innovation District were in for a longer story.
DESIGNING THE BOSTON INNOVATION CENTER
As the project moved forward, the “innovation center” concept began to get fleshed out. The City wanted a central node for the Innovation District, a space where entrepreneurs could gather together.
That was about as detailed as the design brief got. No one really knew what this building needed to be, but everyone agreed that it should exist.
At this point the team expanded. The experts at the Cambridge Innovation Center (now called CIC) were brought into design meetings to help us understand how an innovation center should function. I drank it all in, stayed up late making new iterations, researched innovation spaces everywhere in the world.
We didn’t know what the building was, but we knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a coworking space, because it wasn’t big enough to be financially sustainable. It wasn’t a restaurant or cafe, but it had a restaurant and cafe. It wasn’t really a conference center, but there would be conferences there.
It was confusing.
Since we didn’t know how the building would really function, we decided to make it as flexible as possible. The main assembly space got two huge garage doors inside of it, a budget-friendly way to divide up the space at the touch of a button. We added extra HVAC units and doors and drywall headers in the conference rooms, so if they were sized wrong, it would be easy to split them into separate rooms later. We came up with some volumetric spatial indicators that allowed the large lounge space so be subdivided into smaller, team-sized brainstorming spaces for hackathons and daily meetings.
I felt like I understood that little building inside and out. I could imagine artists working next to scientists, dance parties and scientific research conventions, hackathons and pop-ups.
I remember thinking, “I could run this place.” And then immediately thinking, “They would never pick me.”
Running District Hall
Fast forward two years to 2013, the year that the Boston Innovation Center—now called District Hall—finished construction.
I was already helping out as the building got ready to open, working for the Mayor as the Innovation District Manager and liaising between the City and the operations and construction teams to keep the Mayor’s office posted on progress. And as the opening date drew closer, and they still hadn’t found someone to run the building, I made a choice.
I wanted to make this building succeed, and I felt like it would be the heartbeat of the Innovation District if we could get it right. So I made a pitch to the Venture Café Foundation (the nonprofit organization that was going to run the building).
I can run this. Let me show you.
I was honest about my weaknesses: I said that I was young, and a bit green. I said that I had never managed a major budget before, and while I had management experience, it was only interns, and not a proper team.
But I was also honest about my strengths: I knew the project inside and out. I knew the building because I had literally drawn the floorplans. I knew the players because I had been working with them for years. I knew the goals because I had been reciting them daily for years. And maybe most importantly of all, I loved it more than anyone else. I would give my whole soul to this project, because I cared about making it work.
It was so hard. But it started to work. People started to show up. Events started to happen. The HVAC shuddered and moaned and eventually got used to its new job. The articles turned from skeptical, to excited, to neutral, as the project passed from pipe dream, to new shiny object, to a fundamental fixture of the innovation scene in Boston.
And that’s what it is now. This special little building has hosted more than 5000 events and meetings since it opened six years ago. The booking and pricing system that I put in place allows District Hall to bring in enough operating revenue to pay the bills, but also to give away $1M of space every year totally for free, to support startups and nonprofits that can’t afford the rental fees at big venues. I grew the staff, from just me, to me plus one, to me plus three, plus interns and volunteers. We put together countless partnerships: with MassChallenge, with BUILD, with Artists for Humanity, with the Mass Life Sciences Center, with the consulates, with startups and nonprofits and government agencies, all designed to help grow jobs and businesses in Boston and beyond.
District Hall is a public-private partnership (I usually say it’s a Public-Private Partnership with a triple capital “P”). It’s not just a private event building—it’s nonprofit, and also has a mandate from the City of Boston to support innovation events, as defined in a pretty complex set of legal agreements that govern the operation of the building. So this job was just as much about data tracking for compliance as it was about making the building a hub of innovation activity. We couldn’t be lax—every booking, every price reduction, every sponsorship had to be carefully tracked, so that the impact could be tracked.
Running a program like this requires a weird combination of flexibility and spontaneity with hyper-intense organization and attention to detail. Managing those spreadsheets might sound boring to some, but I felt just as much creativity in developing those tracking systems as I did when I was doing the initial design work.
For me, this building was a case study for everything I wanted to learn about the built environment, about how the pieces all fit together.
I got to see the initial decision making process, the vision documents, the programming and the value engineering. I got to see the importance of it in a political environment, the way that a building could be a symbol, a leverageable part of a bigger economic whole.
I got to see how the actual systems of the building would work—how the decisions we made as designers about specifications and lighting placements and room dimensions would play out in the context of a business model and an impact mandate. I got to see how a multi-tiered revenue model could work, how you could cobble together a sustainable business from sponsorships and room rentals while still giving away tons of free value to the community. And I got to see how a place like this could become a home for so many stories, the start of so many partnerships and friendships, a true hub for a city changing its narrative.
District Hall is still my first love. I still have that misty feeling when I think back on it.
I spent about four hectic but deeply rewarding years there, until the building was running well, the systems were holding up. Since my team was mostly self-sufficient, I had started work on other projects—helping launch the Roxbury Innovation Center, consulting on Venture Cafe expansions into other cities. But District Hall would remain the heartbeat of my career, and the benchmark by which I measured all future projects. To have the opportunity to help conceptualize and design a place, and then the responsibility to make it work—that experience shaped me in ways that have underpinned my later journey as an entrepreneur. There are things I would change if I did it again, sure. But I owe a lot to this little building, and I will always be grateful for the things it taught me.