There have been three great ages of development in modern Boston. The first began after the Back Bay was filled in the late 19th century, a radical change that triggered a historic construction boom. The second came in the 1960s and ’70s, when a “high spine” of office towers — stretching from the financial district to the Pru — began to rise over an old town.
The third is now.
Its businesses and population on the rise, Boston is in the midst of a building spree whose enormity, pace, and geographic sweep are redefining the skyline faster than any period since the early Industrial Age.
On every horizon, cranes and steel skeletons frame a city bursting with development. New skyscrapers are rising in Downtown Crossing and the Back Bay, and gritty corners long abandoned by developers are blossoming into gleaming new neighborhoods.
By the end of last year, 14.6 million square feet of new buildings were rising in Boston, the equivalent of more than eight John Hancock Towers, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. That is a new high-water mark for a city whose prior booms — each driven by innovation and rapid business growth — created fundamental change in its layout, attractions, and architecture.
Filling the Back Bay, which began in late 1850s and ended with the century, led to the development of Commonwealth Avenue with its central mall and alphabetical, anglophilic cross streets, thoroughfares distinctly identifiable with Boston, as are the long rows of stately brownstones that filled the new street grid and the landmark buildings — the Boston Public Library, Trinity Church, and the first Museum of Fine Arts (on the site of the current Fairmont Copley Plaza) — that framed the new Copley Square.
A century later, the Hancock and Prudential towers became monuments to Boston’s growth as a financial capital, and, over a 20-year stretch, the city whose tallest building had long been the Custom House Tower built out the essential look of its current downtown.
Today’s boom is more residential and more about the appeal of living in a bustling metropolis — an appeal directed mainly, as was the Back Bay project, at those of very considerable means. Glassy apartment towers are under construction on Boston’s waterfront, where another thoroughfare, Seaport Boulevard, is lying in wait for new stores, crowds, and street life.
In the adjacent downtown, Boston is becoming a taller place. Five towers over 600 feet, or roughly 60 stories, are proposed or already being built, defying a zoning code that still defaults in many districts to 19th-century height limits of 80 to 120 feet. Most of the new buildings will be filled with very expensive residences offering panoramic views.
“We’re a city in high demand,” said Bill McCall, president of the commercial brokerage McCall & Almy Inc. “We’ve really had a transformation that makes living and working in Boston all the more attractive.”
The city’s explosive growth is drawing worldwide attention, and money from all over as well. International investors are sinking billions of dollars into Boston real estate developments. Banks and real estate funds from Europe, Asia, and South America are buying trophy office towers and funding construction of luxury hotels and condominiums.
Many neighborhoods are barely recognizable from just a few years ago. Boylston Street in the Fenway, once dominated by fast-food joints and gas stations, is lined with luxury apartment buildings and new restaurants, and the tallest of them, a new tower planned for the triangular tip between Boylston and Brookline Avenue, is soon to break ground. The Seaport District is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the country. And long-struggling places like Dudley Square and the East Boston waterfront are on the cusp of major transformations.
Boston has had periods of heavy building activity in the recent past, most notably in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, and in the late 1980s. But none of those booms rival the current one in terms of construction volume, according to an analysis by the real estate firm Transwestern RBJ, which examined real estate records back to the 1700s at the Globe’s request.
Only the urban-renewal transformation of the 1960s and ’70s came close to the current boom in terms of the impact on Boston’s skyline and neighborhoods. That era brought construction of Government Center, with City Hall as its provocative new centerpiece. It also kicked off the development of Prudential Center, including its signature skyscraper, which replaced vast rail yards that separated the South End and Back Bay.
Today, Boston Properties, one of the city’s most prolific builders, is developing a 17-story office building on the final parcel within the Prudential complex. Meanwhile, the area around the Pru is exploding with new projects and proposals for hotels and towering residential buildings.
“It’s absolutely extraordinary,” said Bob Richards, a partner at Transwestern RBJ. “What’s driving it is the top-tier labor talent in industries like technology and life sciences. The young people who work for those companies want to live in an urban environment.”
Not coincidentally, the city’s population is rising more rapidly than it has in decades. The total head count rose by nearly 30,000 people, to about 646,000, between 2010 and 2013, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s more population growth in three years than Boston experienced in the 1980s and ’90s combined.
The rapid increase is fueling an unprecedented amount of housing construction in neighborhoods from Charlestown to Jamaica Plain. Of the 72 projects underway in the city, about 68 percent are residential buildings, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
About 8,000 new apartments are expected to be completed in Boston over the next three years, doubling the amount built in large luxury complexes since 1960. And surging demand for condominiums is shaking up the skyline: A 625-foot-tall condo building, known as Millennium Tower, is under construction in Downtown Crossing, and a 700-foot skyscraper recently got underway next to Christian Science Plaza.
Those buildings are among the tallest built in decades and promise to bring new levels of luxury to the city. The project next to Christian Science Plaza will include the city’s second Four Seasons Hotel, and Millennium Tower includes one penthouse unit being offered for $37.5 million.
The median selling price of condominiums in the downtown area rose to $619,000 at the end of last year, a 12 percent increase from 2013, according to LINK, a real estate tracking firm. Both rents and purchase prices have surged to historic highs.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has vowed to combat the ever-rising cost of housing by building more moderately priced complexes, a promise with echoes from other eras of rapid development and rising prices.
In 1921, as rents skyrocketed in the strengthening economy, mayoral candidate James Michael Curley threatened to undermine “rent hogs” by borrowing $15 million to flood the market with lower-cost housing.
“I will build homes for workingmen, letting them pay for them by the month and at such a reasonable figure as to force these greedy landlords to come down in their prices,” Curley said in a campaign speech covered by the Globe.
Walsh is taking a similar, if less strident, approach. He said he has identified 250 properties across the city for development of middle-income housing, and he is also proposing state legislation to create tax incentives for such projects. Meanwhile, he has also repeatedly acknowledged the economic and physical improvements brought by luxury projects.
Some neighborhoods are seeing rapid-fire construction activity:
■ In the South End, a 12-acre portion of Harrison Avenue adjacent to Interstate 93 is being completely remade. Developers are building more than 700 apartments and condominiums, and recently opened the city’s largest Whole Foods grocery store. Hundreds of additional homes are also planned.
■ At North Station, Converse Inc. is building a new world headquarters, and a 38-story residential tower is under construction nearby. Developers are also planning to build a 600-foot complex of homes, offices, and stores in front of the TD Garden.
■ In Dudley Square, the city is building a $115 million municipal office complex that will house 500 school district employees. Hundreds of new homes are also planned in the area, along with new retail stores.
But by far the most sweeping transformation has occurred in the Seaport District, where the torrid pace of building has turned a 50-acre expanse of parking lots into an emerging neighborhood of homes, commercial buildings, shops, and restaurants.
Office towers are being built for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP. Four apartment towers are under construction, and a New York-based real estate powerhouse, Tishman Speyer, is planning to move forward soon with an office building at Pier 4.
“We’re seeing strength throughout the market and that gives us the confidence to move forward on a speculative basis,” Rob Speyer, cochief executive of the firm, said in a recent interview. “Boston has one of the strongest economies in the country. It’s diverse in terms of its industries, and it has an extremely educated workforce.”
Developers John B. Hynes III and the Berkshire Group started construction this winter on a pair of 22-story apartment towers across from the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse. The buildings will sit on top of 300,000 square feet of restaurants, stores and entertainment, including a ShowPlace ICON movie theater.
Boston’s only other comparable period of residential building occurred in the 19th century, the era of the filling of the Back Bay and the development of Beacon Hill. Hundreds of new homes and apartment houses were built. The face of the city core was transformed.
A second major wave of institutional development followed in the first years of the 20th century in the Fenway section, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Opera Company, and, across the Fens, the Boston Red Sox built grand new homes there.
“That’s when Boston became a great city, the Athens of America,” Hynes said of the 19th-century boom. “That took Boston from an old, second-tier city to number one or two in the country in terms of wealth and new energy.”
Today’s revival is raising the city’s profile on an international stage. Total foreign investment in Boston’s commercial properties more than doubled to $10.4 billion through last September, up from $4.7 billion during the same period in 2013.
The surge put Boston sixth in the world in the amount of money it attracted from foreign sources, behind only London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles, according to Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a real estate services firm.
Norges Bank, the central bank of Norway, recently purchased large stakes in office towers at One Beacon Street, Atlantic Wharf, and 100 Federal St.
Last May, a venture led by Toronto-based Oxford Properties purchased five buildings in Boston and Cambridge for $2.1 billion.
“Boston has been discovered from an international perspective,” said John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction. “With our health care and academic institutions, we have a very compelling story to tell. I think we have a strong outlook for the next 10 years.”