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WALTHAM, MA-A high-flying technology firm serving the life sciences sector is searching for a new headquarters, providing suburban Boston landlords a prospect said to approach 160,000 sf. Real estate services firm FHO Partners has reportedly been retained to pursue alternatives to Phase Forward’s operations at 880 Winter St., part of the Waltham Woods Corporate Center owned by ING Clarion.

“It’s a real requirement,” one industry source tells GlobeSt.com, as opposed to an exploratory review. A below-market sublease that had allowed Phase Forward to enjoy one of the region’s premier suburban addresses since 2005 will expire in early 2009, and observers say the firm faces a doubling of its rent in order to stay in the estimated 120,000 sf previously occupied by BMC Software. Calls to Phase Forward officials and to FHO Partners principal John Boyle, said to be on the brokerage search team, were not returned by press deadline. Nonetheless, sources insist FHO has already begun the assignment.

According to leasing broker Alex Dauria of Jones Lang LaSalle, Waltham Woods “sets the high mark for rents” in suburban Boston thanks to high-end finishes and amenities, plus direct access and visibility from Route 128. Therefore, any transaction would likely exceed $40 per sf, but Dauria declined comment about the Phase Forward situation or whether ING anticipates being able to re-sign the firm at such a lofty rate. “They certainly seem to like the building,” says Dauria, whose firm is also leasing agent for 890 St., the companion building in the park.

The breadth of Phase Forward’s search is also unclear, but observers maintain that the firm has already forayed into the Bedford/Burlington market a few miles north of Waltham Woods. One contact told of a visit to the Sun Microsystems campus in Burlington that just traded for $212 million to Nordic Properties, but that could not be confirmed.

Should the geography extend beyond Route 128 Central, price would seemingly be among the key considerations. Phase Forward assists the life sciences sector by using technology to advance clinical trials and other approval steps for new drugs and therapies. Besides access to Boston, Cambridge and the Massachusetts Turnpike, Phase Forward is already ensconced in a market increasingly favored by the life sciences community. Among the potential clients that have already claimed Waltham and Route 128 Central as home include AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and Praecis Pharmaceuticals, while others continue to migrate outward from Cambridge.

Cushman & Wakefield broker Richard Ruggiero says he is seeing tenants from core markets explore the northern tier of Route 128, likely a result of the rising rents. C&W represents the seven-building Crosby Corporate Center in Bedford and several other properties in the area. Many firms who signed favorable leases after the technology bust occurred in 2001 are now facing similar situations as that Phase Forward is coping with, according to Ruggiero, who also would not comment specifically on that company. “We’re seeing a little bit of everything,” Ruggiero says of the tenant mix, including small and large requirements.

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