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Construction of NorthPoint mini-city in Cambridge to resume

The first step when construction resumes on 45 acres of former railyards will be building a 19-floor residential and retail tower.

david L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012

The first step when construction resumes on 45 acres of former railyards will be building a 19-floor residential and retail tower.

On a projection screen, images of the $2 billion NorthPoint development in Cambridge are striking: Glass-walled residential­ and office towers soar above manicured parks and a bustling plaza with restaurants, a new transit station, and a year-round public food market.

It is a utopia that to this point has eluded its planners, leaving much of the 45-acre property in East Cambridge overgrown with weeds since work stalled in 2007 because of legal and financial issues.

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But a new development team has revived the project and is planning to resume construction by early next year, beginning with a 19-story residential and retail tower, then a large office building and retail plaza with restaurants, shops, and pubs. The project has the rare potential to create a new mini-city within the densely packed Boston metropolitan area.

“This is one of the biggest sites in the Northeast,” said Thomas N. O’Brien, managing director of HYM Investment Group, which is leading the development team. “Our objective is to embrace it as a residential area and layer in retail that really makes it work. That will also­ help make it a very popular place for technology and life sciences companies.”

In all, the project will include 2,900 residences, 2 million square feet of laboratory and office buildings, several public parks, and 200,000 square feet of retail space.

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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is also­ beginning construction of a new Lechmere Station, which will serve as the starting point of an extension of the Green Line to Tufts University.

HYM and its partners, a team that includes former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson, have spent the past year revising the development plan, adding the retail plaza, taller buildings, public parks, and wider pedestrian crossings on Monsignor O’Brien Highway.

Developers say a square with restaurants and shops will help make NorthPoint a community, not just a collection of buildings.

rendering/NBBJ/Chan Krieger Sieniewicz

Developers say a square with restaurants and shops will help make NorthPoint a community, not just a collection of buildings.

The Cambridge City Council approved the plan late last month. The designs of the individual buildings still need approval from the city’s planning board.

“We’re excited it’s moving forward,” said City Councilor and State Representative Timothy Toomey. “It’s a hinterland now, so there’s a real opportunity to develop the site and make a seamless connection with the rest of East Cambridge.”

Councilor Ken Reeves said O’Brien, a former director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, has struck the right tone with the new plan for the property.

“The development team knows the difference between building more buildings and making a great place,” Reeves said. “I think we’re on the precipice of welcoming a great new neighborhood here.”

The property, situated on a gritty tract between Charlestown, Cambridge, and Somerville, used to serve as a major rail hub; it faded away with the advent of modern shipping and communication.

In the early 2000s, an initial wave of redevelopment resulted in public parks, an office building and residences, but much of the property remains empty.

Sitting in a spartan office in Government Center this week, O’Brien acknowledged it will take another 10 years to complete NorthPoint. But he said he is confident in the staying power of the project’s financial backers, a group that includes Atlas Capital Group and Canyon Johnson Urban Funds, which is Johnson’s real estate business.

Pan Am, the property’s owner, also remains a partner.

The HYM team acquired development rights in August 2010, following a lawsuit between Pan Am and its previous partner, the former real estate firm Spaulding & Slye.

Completing the NorthPoint project, which stalled about five years ago, will probably take another decade, the developers say.

rendering/NBBJ/Chan Krieger Sieniewicz

Completing the NorthPoint project, which stalled about five years ago, will probably take another decade, the developers say.

The revised plan for the project includes transportation upgrades, such a new stairway from the Gilmore Bridge and reworking busy Monsignor O’Brien Highway into a calmer boulevard with a landscaped median and wider pedestrian crossings.

The plan would also realign First Street to allow for more direct pedestrian connections between NorthPoint, surrounding businesses, and nearby Kendall Square.

“It’s going to create a great gateway into Cambridge,” said Patrick Magee, president of the East Cambridge Business Association and owner of Atwood’s Tavern. He added that residents and businesses want the project to emphasize independent retail stores instead of national chains.

O’Brien promises to search for locally based retailers such as those in Inman Square. He said an entry point for the retail plaza will be a year-round public food market, which he expects to be about 10,000 square feet.

“We want the retail square to be a really interesting place to gather, with different restaurant and food offerings,” he said, adding that the precise location and programming have not been decided.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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