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Seaport developer builds on distant lessons

John Hynes is trying to take what he learned from that project and put it to work on a 6.3-million-square-foot mixed-use development in the Seaport District.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

John Hynes is trying to take what he learned from that project and put it to work on a 6.3-million-square-foot mixed-use development in the Seaport District.

INCHEON, South Korea — When Boston developer John Hynes first laid eyes on this city in 2001, he looked out at a 1,500-acre wasteland, much of it covered in water, and saw opportunity.

Hynes had been courted by the South Korean government to build a massive city from scratch, one of the world’s largest private real estate projects, with 60-story housing complexes, a park, a waterfront golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and amenities modeled after major cities around the world, including Boston.

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Some 100 million square footage would be built, the equivalent of 83 Prudential Towers in Boston.

“I think we have an opportunity here to have a lot of fun,” he told his partner after viewing the wasteland. “Build a lot of buildings.”

New Songdo City, as the development is called, hasn’t yet turned out the way Hynes and his business partners envisioned, and he left the project four years ago. It currently feels more like a small Midwestern city than a giant international hub, with wide boulevards and newly planted trees but little hustle and bustle.

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Now Hynes is facing what could be his greatest challenge, one that could play a vital role in Boston’s development. He is embarking on a 6.3-million-square-foot mixed-use project in the Seaport District, and the plain-spoken, confident, brash-sounding developer said he plans to use the hard lessons learned in South Korea and Boston to ensure its success.

It seems more than an effort to build glimmering towers on the water’s edge. It is, in a sense, a deeply personal effort by Hynes to attain the heights he had envisioned in South Korea and Downtown Crossing, and now believes he can achieve in the Seaport.

* * *

IN SPRING 2001, Hynes got an unexpected call. The South Korean government hired Jay Kim to find an American developer. Kim knew Thomas O’Neill III, the former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. So O’Neill sent him to Hynes.

“Think big,” Kim told Hynes over the phone.

“What part of the city?” Hynes asked.

“The whole thing,” Kim responded.

The city was planned to be about the size of downtown Boston, and the vision was grand: A wide boulevard would be like the Champs-Elysees in Paris, an opera house like the one in Sydney, and canals that would take a visitor to Venice.

It would mark the first time a foreign owner took control of Korean soil. It would be built on the other side of a 7.6-mile bridge from the Incheon International Airport — and within a 3½-hour flight from one-third of the world’s population.

Boston developer John Hynes at first saw great possibilities in Incheon. But what looked like “an opportunity here to have a lot of fun” fell short of his expectations.

JEAN CHUNG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Boston developer John Hynes at first saw great possibilities in Incheon. But what looked like “an opportunity here to have a lot of fun” fell short of his expectations.

Not long after the phone conversation, Hynes was on a first-class trip to Korea. But first, he had to get a passport. He had never traveled overseas, and now his job was to develop a city from scratch in a foreign land.

“For me, everything was new. Forget about the Koreans,” Hynes said. “Just international travel. Passport, customs. Syncing up calendars and schedules. It was all foreign.”

He was taught to present a business card with two hands. During dinners, he learned to pass things with his right hand, left hand on the forearm. And if his hosts wanted to take him to a late-night karaoke bar, he would happily oblige.

“You bow,” Hynes said. “A lot.” Enough that he started bowing, to great confusion, to clients in Boston.

The firm signed a contract, and Hynes and his partner, Stan Gale, chairman and CEO of Gale International, agreed to build a new city near the spot where General Douglas MacArthur once landed during the Korean War.

* * *

T HE HYNES name is legendary in Boston. John Hynes’s grandfather was the city’s mayor for a decade, his father a longtime television newscaster. There’s a large convention center in the Back Bay named for his family. Hynes made his name in Boston developing One Lincoln, a commercial office tower that is now known as State Street Financial Center. That project, which was done with Gale, gave them the reputation to attract South Korean developers.

Hynes began making 20-hour trips from Boston to South Korea, and in the early planning stages he tried to inject design elements from his home city.

“It’s Koreanized for sure. You’re not . . . in Europe,” Hynes said. “But it’s more like Boston than Shanghai. . . . If I had to pick a city in Asia that reminded me something of Boston, it would be this one.”

There are no ocean golf courses in Korea, and Hynes wanted a course on the water, like the ones he frequents on Cape Cod. So he convinced South Koreans to build the Nicklaus-designed course on the water, where initial membership fees were set at $1 million.

He also wanted buildings to have different heights, rather than the designs common in Asia, where similar-sized buildings are clumped together. The scale would give the feel, in Hynes’s mind, of walking down Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, with four-story buildings along the boulevard and the Prudential building in the background.

But one hitch in the project came when Hynes and his partners said they wanted a large public park. The Koreans were skeptical. So Hynes flew them to Boston, and, between trips to Plymouth Rock and Harvard Yard, he gave them a tour of Boston Common and the Public Garden. “I said, ‘Look at the buildings surrounding it. They’re the most valuable pieces of real estate in the whole city,’ ” Hynes recalled. “They liked it. They liked the way it was scaled. They like the walkability of it. We walked everywhere when they were here.”

They immediately bought into the concept — but also wanted to make sure their version, like Boston’s, had an underground parking garage.

“Boston became a template,” Hynes said. “Ignore the history, ignore the red brick, ignore the copper roofs — because we can’t afford any of that. But you can picture the scale and you can feel the way it works. And they liked that.”

They also wanted an international school, and initially sought to see if Milton Academy would build a version of their school in South Korea. Milton declined, so Hynes enlisted headmasters from a range of Boston area prep schools to begin designing an international academy.

Ultimately, a gleaming new school was built. It is currently operated by the Chadwick School, a K-12 school in Los Angeles (it costs more than $30,000 a year to attend school there; all students carry Apple Macbooks).

“The design of the school itself — it doesn’t look like a prep school in New England,” Hynes said. “But it runs like one.”

* * *

AFTER SEVERAL years of running the project —

and making 100 trips over 10 years — Hynes began to get worn down.

“It was fun for the first four or five years. But then it got hard,” Hynes said. “After we started construction and it became clear we had something of value, we started running into turbulence. Turbulence with the government, with my partner, with the media.”

He said in an interview that he came to believe that his partner, Gale, was trying to take control of the project, which Hynes believed was unfair given how much time he had spent on it.

Jean Chung for the Boston Globe

A parking guide crossed the road between construction projects in Incheon, South Korea.

“We just started, you know, banging heads. I had a seven year unfettered run of running this thing, and now he wants to come in and undo some of the work that I had done and change some other things,” Hynes said. “My ego got in the way, his ego got in the way. It was clear this wasn’t going to last long.”

There were bitter accusations in the end, but no lawsuits and, Hynes said, “it all got fixed in a very uncomfortable way.”

“As a result we don’t talk,” Hynes said. “And I wouldn’t do business with him again.”

Gale declined to comment.

By 2010, Hynes asked Gale to buy him out of the project. Gale would continue to oversee the company’s project in Songdo City, while Hynes would split off, form another company called Boston Global Investors, and oversee the development they had been doing jointly in Boston’s Seaport District.

Hynes said that he sold his half of the ownership interest in Songdo City, while Gale gave him cash as well as his half interest in the Seaport Square project. “It was profitable,” he said, declining to be specific.

At the same time, not all had gone smoothly in Boston. Hynes had partnered with Vornado Realty Trust to try to redevelop the former Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing. But after running into financing issues during an economic downturn, the project stalled in 2008, becoming an eyesore in the heart of the city’s central shopping district. A new developer, Millennium Partners, took over in 2012, revamped the plans, and is now filling a hole that has been empty for years. Hynes, asked about the project, called it “the most disappointing part of my career.

* * *

SONGDO CITY, meanwhile, is a constant construction site. Drills, hammers, and banging ring out throughout the day on a luxury mall and new high-rise buildings. The $35 billion, 100-million-square-foot project is over 50 percent done. Completion is now expected by 2020.

The project developers — jointly done by Gale International and South Korea-based Posco Engineering and Construction — have gotten back the less than $100 million in equity they put into the project, but haven’t yet earned a profit, the Wall Street Journal reported in December. While the development has had success in attracting residents to live there, commercial development has lagged. So far, it’s more of an upscale bedroom community than an international business hub.

“I’ll say it for you: It’s a little quiet in the daytime,” said Scott Summers, a senior vice president at Gale International who moved here in 2011 from Arlington, Mass., and is trying to recruit multinational companies to relocate.

Some of that could change, Summers said. At least 22,500 new jobs are expected to be added by 2016, increasing from 33,000 jobs there now. The Presidents Cup, a major international golf tournament, will be held on the Songdo City course in 2015. “The biggest challenge we have is bringing in companies,” Summers said. “We’re just starting to get traction on that.”

* * *

N OW HYNES is trying to transfer what he learned in South Korea to Boston. Hynes said he’s more organized and has learned the importance of patience.

His focus now is Seaport Square, a development that aims to transform 23 acres of parking lots into a neighborhood with condominiums, offices, stores, and parks. All told, Hynes hopes to help build 20 projects totaling 6.3 million square feet. Construction will have started on about a third of the development by June and Hynes is aiming to finish by 2020, meaning his new project in the Seaport would be finished the same year as his old one in Songdo City.

One aspect that Hynes liked about the Songdo City development was its pairing of an international school into a neighborhood. Preference for attendance was given to those who bought homes in the development. Hynes wants to do the same thing in the Seaport District, building the first school in the area — a private one — and loosely tying housing units to the school.

“So basically the way the formula works is if you buy a house, you have first dibs on the seat for the school,” Hynes said.

Hynes wants the project in Boston to be done by a New York-based school called The Avenues, which is building similar schools around the world. He also wants a certain portion of the seats to be set aside for Boston residents, with scholarships for them to attend.

Hynes floated a similar idea in 2007, but he was rebuffed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who at the time called it a “hare-brained idea.” “He never spoke to me again, the mayor,” Hynes said. Menino declined to comment.

But with a new mayor, Martin J. Walsh, Hynes wants another chance. Hynes wants a school in the Seaport, as a way to bring young families to his development. The school would be built as part of a plan that has about 1,000 housing units.

“Now, there’s a new mayor,” Hynes said. “I’m hopeful he will see the benefit — yes, it’s a private school. But isn’t a private school better than no school at all?”

Walsh, who said he has spoke preliminarily with Hynes about it, said he liked the idea.

“My first priority is making sure we have a very strong school system in Boston,” Walsh said. “But if John were to attract a school like that to Boston, and was willing to build it himself, I’m certainly not opposed to it.”

* * *

AS HYNES sits back in his desk in Boston, rem-   nants from his years in South Korea decorate his office. On the wall is a photo of him with the country’s president. Plaques and trophies mark accomplishments during the Songdo City development.

But he is bitter enough about how it ended that he deleted the files related to the project from his computer.

If he could do it over, he would have moved there so there could have been more oversight over the project.

He still feels a project of the size of Songdo City can be done. And he’s still proud. He doesn’t accept “the knee jerk response” that such a massive project is impossible.

“Hey, look, we got a lot done. Who would have thunk it? You know? We did OK,” he said. “Could we have done twice as much? Maybe. But we did OK. I wouldn’t say it was harder than I thought. Because we did a lot.”

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Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
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