First it was a rail yard. Then small factories. And now this nondescript stretch of Brighton is aiming to become a new hub for the economy of modern-day Boston, home to 5,000 white-collar jobs within a few years.
That's what New Balance Shoe Co. is seeking at Boston Landing, the 15-acre campus the athletic shoe manufacturer is building around its new headquarters overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Among the seven buildings New Balance is putting up over the next few years are three — with nearly 650,000 square feet of office space among them — geared toward tech, life science, and other companies that want to be near downtown Boston but not quite in the heart of it.
Boston Landing is one of several big real estate developments underway that will transform long-quiet neighborhoods along the outer ring of the city into centers of commerce.
Somewhere between bustling high-rise and placid office park, the new centers are pitching themselves as offering urban feel and access without the congestion of downtown — or the prices.
And whether at Assembly Row in Somerville or the Arsenal complex in Watertown, around Harvard University's growing campus in Allston or rehabbed buildings in Charlestown and Fenway, these projects are bringing major employers to places that were once a sort of economic no-man's land between downtown and Route 128.
"It's going to make the city feel bigger," said Brendan Carroll, a veteran market researcher at Encompass Real Estate. "Instead of going from downtown to this no-place zone for a while and then hitting Waltham, I think it'll make for a very contiguous experience."
Nearly 40 percent of the office construction underway in Greater Boston is in neighborhoods along or just beyond the outer borders of Boston, according to Encompass, a real estate advisory firm. And much of that construction is large, multibuilding complexes like Boston Landing.
In 2011, the development arm of New Balance bought a swath of underused warehouses just east of its old headquarters on Guest Street. The footwear firm has been based in Brighton for decades, but it saw an opportunity in its backyard to do more.
First, New Balance built its new headquarters building, five stories of sleek glass along the Mass. Pike, and moved in last fall. It's nearly finished with a second building next door, which will have a practice facility for the Boston Bruins and upper-floor offices marketed to tech and life science companies. One of the other two office buildings will include a new practice facility for the Boston Celtics. The rest of the build-out includes a hotel, apartment building, and a vast track-and-field center.
The mix of activities, from office workers to residents to sports fans, should guarantee Boston Landing is buzzing with activity all week long, said Jim Halliday, managing director at NB Development Group, a division of New Balance.
"We expect it will be a seven-day-a-week kind of place," he said. "And we think Boston Landing will become a gateway from the western suburbs."
In that sense these projects reflect a sort of return to the Boston of the first half of the 20th century, when streetcar suburbs flourished as commercial hubs of their own. But then highway expansion pushed commuters, and jobs for them, further out into the suburbs. Route 128 boomed, and then Interstate 495.
The pendulum has since swung back: Many workers, particularly younger ones, want to live and work in the city and their employers have followed suit.
But they face high real estate costs and tight markets in hot spots such as Kendall Square and the Seaport District; and many employers still have lots of workers accustomed to driving in from the suburbs, making other parts of downtown, with its pricey parking, a tough sell.
The inner ring can be a convenient compromise for both workers and companies, said Robert Fitzgerald, an office broker at CBRE, a major real estate firm.
"Usually these sites are more affordable" than downtown locations, Fitzgerald said. "Typically they have parking. And they have a level of public transit you can't get on 128."
That last factor is important enough that some builders are adding train stations to their developments.
The giant Assembly Row project in Somerville, where Partners Healthcare is moving 4,200 employees into a new building, includes a new Orange Line stop that was a big draw for the company, said Partners spokesman Ron Copp. New Balance is paying for a commuter rail station at Boston Landing, and Halliday said he expects it will be well-used by commuters both from the suburbs and downtown.
"For economic development to work at this site, it made sense to add another mode of transportation," he said.
Other locations farther from rail lines are making do with shuttle service. The Arsenal on the Charles campus in Watertown, where athenahealth has more than 2,000 workers, offers shuttles to Harvard Square. Boylston Properties is planning a major re-do of the Arsenal Mall and is building a 180,000-square-foot office building across Arsenal Street.
Boylston Properties principal Bill McQuillan noted the location is under the radar even though it borders Boston, Cambridge, and Newton.
"Watertown isn't exactly Timbuktu," McQuillan said. "It's got proximity to all the things that matter."
The prospect of cheaper land, close in, has also drawn many housing developers to these so-called "outer-urban" areas, especially near the T. Within a 1-mile radius of Boston Landing in Brighton and Watertown, there are at least 12 apartment and condo projects in the works, with more than 2,200 new units combined.
All the new jobs nearby will help fill those apartments, said Bruce Percelay, chairman of the Mount Vernon Co., which is planning a 132-unit apartment building at 530 Western Ave. in Brighton. But the emergence of Brighton and Allston as a new business hub has Percelay thinking his next project over there won't be apartments, but offices.
"That'll be our next move," he said. "Office. Life science. We've been talking with some companies in Kendall Square about potentially moving over here."