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Dudley Square’s comeback tied to historic structure

Overhaul of Ferdinand Building spurs business, development plans

The effort to rehabilitate the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square has brought signs of a renewal and a starting point.

Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff

The effort to rehabilitate the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square has brought signs of a renewal and a starting point.

Dudley Square has fallen a long way since the days of Frank Ferdinand, the 19th-century entrepreneur who opened a popular furniture store that once made Roxbury a retail destination. It has battled back in recent years, but still suffers from scattered graffiti and boarded-up storefronts, and razor wire around some property tells of crime that still lingers.

A $120 million effort to rehabilitate Ferdinand’s namesake commercial building in the heart of Dudley has brought the first real signs of a renewal. Starbucks wants to open in the building. So do the owners of Tasty Burger, Parish Cafe, and Salvatore’s restaurant.

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Businesses and developers are proposing new offices, hotels, restaurants, and retail boutiques. A supermarket is also being planned, along with hundreds of residences.

“Everything is changing in Dudley, and in a good way,” said Humayun Morshed, a young businessman who owns several convenience stores. He is proposing to open an ice cream shop in Dudley Square named after Ferdinand himself.

The Ferdinand Building, a prominent Baroque and Renaissance Revival structure built in the 1880s, is propelling a revival that has been inching along for years. When the restoration is completed next year, the building will become the new home of the Boston Public Schools administration, and six new retail spaces will open on its ground floor.

An open house last Thursday for retailers vying to fill those spots brought out a range of businesses, including a representative from Starbucks and franchisees for Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King. Local retailers, such as the Asian restaurant Bon Me and fashion boutique Touch of Class, also came to make their pitches.

The Ferdinand Building, in 1911 and a century later, when it had fallen on hard times. But change is coming.

The Ferdinand Building, in 1911 and a century later, when it had fallen on hard times. But change is coming.

A committee of city officials and neighborhood representatives will select winning bidders from a pool of 22 businesses that made proposals to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Officials said they were impressed by the turnout and hope to announce the winners within months, in plenty of time for the building’s grand reopening next year.

‘If you have players like Tasty Burger, Starbucks, and Parish Cafe, it’s going to get everyone’s attention.’

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In addition to hundreds of school employees who will move into the square — it sits at Boston’s geographic center — Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he is hoping to boost employment in the area by attracting companies from growing sectors like biotechnology.

“I think there’s an opportunity for light manufacturing and office space,” he said. “If we can create an economy there and jobs and stability, you’re going to see more people in that neighborhood buy homes and invest in their homes.”

Earlier this year, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began an effort to open startup space in the square for technology entrepreneurs. The project, named Smarter in the City, still needs funding.

Change won’t happen overnight. Much of Dudley Square is still suffering from the urban blight that took hold in the 1950s and ’60s, emptying the area of thousands of residents and many of its once-popular retailers. Crime, drugs, and poverty are still evident, fueling occasional bursts of street violence.

The Ferdinand Building closed in the 1970s after years of declining business. It opened in the mid-19th century, and owner Frank Ferdinand expanded over the next two decades, constructing a block-long store that became a predecessor — in size and popularity — to the Filene’s Building that would later open downtown.

A Boston Globe article on the expanded store’s opening celebration in September 1887 reported that guests included “nearly everybody of social and political importance in Roxbury.”

Today, business people say its resurrection as a retail mecca is crucial to the broader success of the square.

The range of businesses operating there is limited — a few clothing shops, a couple of cellphone stores, take out restaurants, and a Rent-A-Center.

“If you have players like Tasty Burger, Starbucks, and Parish Cafe, it’s going to get everyone’s attention,” said Darryl Settles, a restaurateur who is proposing an Italian restaurant for the building. “I think it’s going to come together this time.”

In addition to the restoration of the Ferdinand Building, a new police station has been built and a public library branch has been refurbished. The area is also home to the MBTA’s Dudley Station, one of the busiest transit stops in the city.

Several long-vacant parcels around the square have attracted bold development proposals.

At the former Bartlett bus yard, developers have won approval to build more than 100 residences, a parking garage, and commercial space. A vacant lot on Melnea Cass Boulevard has attracted plans for a Tropical Foods supermarket, stores, and residences.

Edna Freeman has been waiting to see signs of renewal for more than 60 years. The lifelong Roxbury resident attended the retail open house last Thursday and chatted with business owners she has known for years.

“It’s good to see that we have a diverse group and a lot of people who are going to be vying to open up in this building,” she said. “I’m hoping that some of these businesses will be able to employ the youth of this area. We need to show them that there is a path to reaching the top.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong name for the project Smarter in the City.

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