One of the largest remaining parcels of open land near downtown Boston sold Thursday, jump-starting plans for the long-awaited development of office buildings, lab space, and nearly 3,000 apartments.
The 42-acre NorthPoint site, on an old rail yard between the Museum of Science and Interstate 93, is being bought by a San Francisco-
area real estate firm, DivcoWest, that specializes in tech-oriented neighborhoods and sees the chance to build one from the ground up in red-hot East Cambridge.
DivcoWest would not say how much it paid for the property, which has been owned since 2010 by an investment fund co-owned by former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But a person familiar with the sale said the price tag was roughly $300 million, which would put it among the most expensive land deals in Greater Boston in recent years.
The site is a rare prize, a large swath of undeveloped land close to the heart of the city and already approved for 4.5 million square feet of building. It offers much of the same potential that Boston officials see at Widett Circle on the other side of downtown, without the daunting infrastructure challenges. And it comes as demand for office space and housing is boiling over in both Kendall Square and central Boston.
“Cambridge is just busting at the seams,” said David Begelfer, executive director of NAIOP, a real estate trade group. “The opportunity for NorthPoint just on the basic growth of Cambridge is great. You match that with the new train station and you really have a tremendous opportunity there.”
Stuart Shiff, chief executive at DivcoWest, said his business focuses on investing in strong, tech-driven markets like Cambridge. The company has purchased four office buildings in downtown Boston and Kendall Square since late 2013. NorthPoint is its biggest deal here yet.
“We’re excited by the NorthPoint opportunity and ready to get to work,” he said.
The company intends to push ahead with development plans that call for a massive complex: 2.4 million square feet of residential space — about 2,800 apartments — and a combined 2.1 million feet of office, research, and retail space. It will be situated on 17 parcels arrayed around 11 acres of new parks and the new Lechmere stop on the soon-to-be-extended Green Line.
A DivcoWest spokesman said the company hasn’t yet decided exactly when it will break ground on buildings, but it has begun working quietly to hasten the project.
In June — after DivcoWest agreed to buy the site but before the deal closed — the project’s developers asked the Cambridge Planning Board for changes to NorthPoint’s master plan that would accelerate construction of a retail “village” near the T stop and “allow several buildings to be developed simultaneously.”
The deal injects new life into a project that has been marked by stops and starts for more than a decade.
NorthPoint sits on the site of a former rail hub that was largely abandoned by the 1980s. Construction of offices and apartments began on the property along the Gilmore Bridge more than a decade ago, but stalled amid lawsuits and the 2007 real estate crash.
In 2010, Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds joined with Tom O’Brien, a veteran local developer and former head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, to restart the project. It broke ground in 2013 on a 20-story apartment building that opened earlier this year.
Still, most of the site remains vacant.
When Canyon-Johnson put the property up for sale, DivcoWest beat out a variety of deep-pocketed bidders.
“We are proud of what NorthPoint has become and are delighted that DivcoWest will oversee the realization of NorthPoint’s full potential,” said Maria Stamolis, senior managing director at Canyon-Johnson.
DivcoWest has not yet signed tenants, a spokesman said. Nor has it laid out how it might mix housing and lab space in the neighborhood.
And while work could start in the coming months, it will likely be several years before the entire project would be completed.
Iram Farooq, acting assistant city manager for community development in Cambridge, said she has met with the new owners and liked what she heard. Speeding up retail development — including plans for a 50,000-square-foot grocery store — is a welcome move.
“That’s one thing we hear from residents [in East Cambridge] a lot,” she said. “One element that keeps it from feeling like much of a neighborhood is that the area has no retail.”
More broadly, she said, the project is a chance to add much-needed housing to a part of Cambridge where rents are soaring. And — along with moving the Green Line — the plan will help knit together a neighborhood that has long been sliced up by roads, rails, and a river.
“It’s a true transformation of an area from old rail yards to a real neighborhood that can feel like it’s part of the city,” she said. “It extends the city to an area that used to feel like a wasteland not so long ago.”
To Dennis Carlone, the project has been a long time coming. A Cambridge City Council member and urban planner, he was part of the team that drafted development plans for NorthPoint back in the 1980s.
After all of the hiccups, he said, it’s good to see development there finally set to move forward.
“It was just sitting there. It was pretty exciting. But we were 20 years too early,” he said. “Now it’s really at the point where it can just go gangbusters.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.