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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

City’s biggest developers look hungry for a piece of the action in Allston

Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on Western Avenue is one of the university’s properties in Allston.
Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on Western Avenue is one of the university’s properties in Allston. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

They’re cutting ribbons and breaking ground constantly these days over in the Seaport. But the city’s developers are already looking for the next big thing.

Judging from the star-studded crowd that packed a classroom at Harvard Business School on Monday, that next big thing is Lower Allston.

A veritable who’s who of Boston developers, as well as a number of out-of-towners, attended a daylong meeting to discuss Harvard’s vision for its Allston properties south of the Business School. Ostensibly, the 100 or so attendees were there to discuss the first portion to be built up: a 14-acre section of what Harvard has dubbed the Enterprise Research Campus, across Western Avenue from the Business School.

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The university’s request for proposals — a formal invite to compete to be the master developer — hits the street next week.

More important, these developers see a unique opportunity to build a neighborhood from the ground up, to turn former rail yards and truck depots on the city’s western edge into nothing less ambitious than the next Kendall Square. It’s a nearly 150-acre blank canvas of sorts, with the Enterprise campus project as the starting point.

It’s a rare day when you see these guys — and they are still mostly guys — crammed into one room. It’s hard to list them all, or divine each one’s level of interest.

But it sure seemed like nearly everyone was there: Dick Friedman, for example, just days before the opening reception for his signature Boston project, the 61-story hotel-and-condo tower in the Back Bay known as One Dalton; and Don Chiofaro, taking a break from the Boston Harbor Garage saga.

Several attendees know a thing or two about creating a neighborhood. Tom O’Brien is embarking on a project that will rival Harvard’s Allston plans, at the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston and Revere. Steve Samuels helped reshape Boylston Street in the Fenway, lining it with apartment towers. His eponymous company has already teamed up with Harvard for the Continuum project down Western Avenue at Barry’s Corner; a sequel could soon be in the works across the street.

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The first phase will probably hew closely to dimensions that have already been approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency: a four-building complex with 400,000 square feet of offices or labs, 250,000 square feet of apartments, and a 250,000-square-foot hotel and conference center.

Developers will be encouraged to get creative, but they should not wander too far outside of those parameters. A Harvard spokeswoman calls the campus an important step toward creating “a new and exciting urban district focused on research, entrepreneurship, and innovation.”

The developer for the first phase will be picked by a new Harvard affiliate known as the Harvard Allston Land Co.; HBS dean Nitin Norhia chairs the board, while former Massport boss Tom Glynn serves as chief executive.

Presumably, the winner will have an edge in future competitions. Harvard will still have about 22 acres to develop between Western Avenue and Cambridge Street, to broaden the Enterprise Research Campus.

Then there are another 100 acres or so south of Cambridge Street, an area controlled by Harvard known as Beacon Park Yard that stretches all the way to the railroad tracks and Boston University.

Harvard has a rough sketch of a new road grid for the area. But much depends on the pending realignment of the Massachusetts Turnpike, a $1 billion megaproject that could last a decade. Work on the highway probably won’t even begin until 2022, at the earliest.

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That project, if done correctly, should unlock all sorts of potential for Harvard — and its for-profit development partners.

Also in the mix: the fate of West Station, a long-promised commuter rail stop at the far end of the Harvard land, with possible train connections to Kendall Square and North Station via a route known as the Grand Junction.

Business groups and Allston residents are eager to see these projects done, but many questions remain about their future. (Harvard, at least, has agreed to kick in $58 million for West Station.)

The Harvard spokeswoman describes Monday’s event as a brainstorming session, an opportunity to learn from the experts before embarking on a project of this magnitude.

Part of the intent, though, must have been to whet the appetite of Boston’s most prominent developers.

If Monday’s showing is any indication, they sure look hungry.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.