For seven years, a massive concrete expanse on Western Avenue belonging to Harvard University sat empty and dusty. A completed foundation hid under the surface, but the rest of the project stalled after the 2008 recession.
Now — finally — a crane is in place, and steel beams have begun to rise.
Outgoing Harvard president Drew Faust, who will step down a year from now after 11 years, will leave perhaps no legacy more visible than the vast Allston campus that has at last begun to take shape.
The crux of the project is a nearly 500,000-square-foot building designed to house about two-thirds of the rapidly expanding John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The building will include offices, classrooms, laboratories, and spaces to encourage students’ creativity.
When Faust departs next June, it will fall to Harvard’s new president to oversee the project to completion, targeted for the fall of 2020.
That new president will also set the course for the university’s next phase of expansion into the rest of its holdings in Allston — 358 acres, compared with 215 in Cambridge — representing an even larger vision. There will soon be more of Harvard on the Boston side of the Charles River than in Cambridge.
The university plans eventually to build an innovation district to encourage students and professors from across the university to collaborate with industry and launch products and startups. Harvard says the idea isn’t to compete with Kendall Square, an area where that type of entrepreneurship has thrived in large part because of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — but to augment it.
This phase of development, on a 36-acre parcel that was formerly a CSX rail yard, won’t get underway until the engineering building is complete.
For several years, it seemed possible that Faust might be known only as the president who stopped the ambitious project along Western Avenue. She paused it in 2009 after the university’s endowment lost $11 billion in the depths of the recession. That decision angered neighbors and Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who urged Harvard not to abandon the grand plans.
“One thing I said, I don’t want slums,’’ Menino said at the time. “I want progress.’’
Now, after the seven-year pause and with a new mayor in office, progress is happening. Plans cleared a crucial hurdle last spring when the city issued permits for construction to restart. Above-ground work on the site began this month.
As it turns out, the pause in Allston has not been entirely bad for Harvard, or the neighborhood. Relations with longtime residents were fractious before the recession but have improved, and the university used the delay to rethink what it needs from the site.
In 2015, Faust’s administration landed a record-breaking $400 million donation from Paulson, a hedge fund billionaire. Paulson graduated from the business school, but said he donated the money to the engineering school because Faust told him it was the university’s priority.
Before the recession, Harvard had planned to build a stem cell research center on Western Avenue. When the university reassessed the project, the engineering college emerged as the focus for extra space. That school has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in the computer science program at the undergraduate level.
According to Harvard, there are more than three times as many students majoring in engineering and applied sciences than there were in 2007, up from 291 to 943. There are four times as many women majoring in engineering compared with a decade ago, according to the school, though men still outnumber women 2 to 1.
The school is also expanding its engineering programs and has hired more faculty, he said. Officials expect the new buildings to accommodate about 100 faculty, 400 graduate students, and 900 undergraduates, or about 19 percent of all Harvard undergraduates who have declared majors.
The buildings are intentionally designed with open spaces to encourage interaction between students and faculty. There will be a cavernous space, called a garage, to make big projects such as solar-powered vehicles, large drones, or robots, and room for student clubs, he said.
The building is down the street from the Harvard Innovation Lab, which opened in 2011 to encourage entrepreneurship across the university and near the business school.
Harvard’s grand entrance into the Allston neighborhood has come with requirements that the university contribute to the community. Rena Park opened last month on land Harvard owns behind the neighborhood’s public library. The university redesigned the 2-acre space and will maintain it. Down the street is the Ed Portal, a center run by Harvard where undergraduates mentor neighborhood children and faculty offer a variety of programs to residents.
Meanwhile, other development is getting an early foothold in the soon-to-be-transformed neighborhood. Stone Hearth Pizza is one of several businesses that rent land from Harvard. The restaurant is located in a refurbished gas station. The nearby Swissbäkers cafe, with a red cow statue on its roof, opened in a former Volkswagen dealership the school purchased as part of a massive, quiet buying spree over three decades. It also rents from Harvard.
From the cafe’s outdoor seating you can see the steel beams rising on the science center site and look across the street at Harvard Stadium. On a recent morning, tractors rumbled by and sparks flew as a worker welded.
When Harvard recast its plans for the neighborhood in 2011, it altered the design of the science center and slightly reduced the square footage. The original plan for the 130-140 Western Ave. building was four connected buildings on the site — now reduced to one — plus another building it will renovate at 114 Western Ave., according to city officials.
The south side of the parcel, which still has the foundation that was dug before the recession, will be landscaped for now but perhaps built on at a later date, city officials said.
Harvard has made other changes as well, such as relocating a subterranean power plant above ground beside the science building, according to university officials.
Down Western Avenue in the other direction is a new, 325-unit luxury apartment building at Barry’s Corner. A Trader Joe’s supermarket plans to move in as the anchor tenant in that complex this year, along with a restaurant. Harvard leases this land to Samuels & Associates, the company that developed the Fenway Triangle Trilogy and is developing this site.
Neighbors for the most part are pleased with the recent progress, according to those who have been involved now for more than a decade. They are happy that some of the empty storefronts and vacant lots that Harvard owns are finally being transformed.
“It was frustrating for all these years just to look at that big empty field, fenced off, and now it feels like it’s getting back into development,” said Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association, about the science center site.
Neighbors said town-gown relations were particularly toxic under then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers. The picture improved dramatically under Faust, they said.
“They’ve changed around what was a horrendous relationship, and . . . it’s much more positive now,” said Bruce Houghton, president of Houghton Chemical Corp. on Cambridge Street, who serves on a community task force that represents neighbors in this project.
Residents still have worries, but not about Harvard directly. Instead, they worry the spinoff development around the academic buildings, like the new cafes and luxury apartments, will raise home values beyond what families can afford.
“People who live here, who raised families here, can see that their children will never be able to buy a place,” said Berkeley, who said his own three children fall into that category.