Metro

City struggles to find right fit for storied Dudley Square

Men gathered to play chess in a nearly empty Tasty Burger, which will close soon, in Dudley Square.  A new restaurant is planned for the site.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Men gathered to play chess in a nearly empty Tasty Burger, which will close soon, in Dudley Square. A new restaurant is planned for the site.

On a recent Friday evening, workers who fill the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Dudley Square were quick to embark on their rush-hour travels home. Few, if any, stopped at the local Tasty Burger.

And the handful who were inside the fast-food burger joint had not known it would be closing for good soon — a month after another eatery, Dudley Dough, also shut its doors.

That’s the way it has been in Dudley Square, a centerpiece of the city’s black history and a target for revitalization. The neighborhood takes a step forward with a new development, a new restaurant opening, only to see one business close and another step in.

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But amid ongoing changes of businesses in recent years, and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment, city officials and community leaders say they still have hope for restoring Dudley Square. They call it a pivotal time for a neighborhood that was once Boston’s second-most-active business center, outside downtown.

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Already, the former manager of Dudley Dough said he is looking to work with another group to replace the restaurant. And the owner of the former Keith’s Place restaurant in Grove Hall said in an interview that she is finalizing a lease to replace Tasty Burger with a new, family-like restaurant — one that could serve as a gathering place.

“We want to make Dudley a destination,” said Cheryl Straughter, repeating a city line, as she discussed plans for the new restaurant. “We want people to stop. And in order to do that, we as business owners have to offer reasons to stop.”

More than 30,000 people pass through the Dudley transit station each day. The city spent $120 million to rehabilitate the former Ferdinand’s furniture building, merging it with two adjacent structures into what is now the Bolling building, and three years ago the city made it the new home of Boston Public Schools. Other businesses moved in, too: Dudley Café has become a hot spot for daytime meetings and gatherings.

If only the customers would stay after nightfall.

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“We need to bring people through the door; we need to keep them here,” said Luther Pinckney, manager of Dudley Dough, during a recent farewell celebration for the nonprofit restaurant. In between tossing chunks of ham and pineapple on freshly spread pizza dough, he ticked off what he thinks the neighborhood needs: a community gathering spot, with drinks and pub food. Somewhere locals can meet for conversation. Somewhere to sit and watch a Celtics game. He can’t think of anywhere like that in the vicinity.

He shares that same vision with city officials, who say Dudley needs a night life, a culture of restaurants and other gathering spots where people can gather — and stay, and spend more money — after 5 on any given night.

“There need to be walkable amenities, representing a diversity of offerings, both because it will improve a quality of life for residents and also because it makes these neighborhoods a destination location,” said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who has worked to expand the availability of liquor licenses to neighborhoods such as Dudley Square, hoping they can lure patrons to the area and spur related development.

John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, said the neighborhood has an opportunity to capitalize on investments that are already taking over the area. The future Guscott Rio Grande building on Washington Street will have 300,000 square feet of mixed-use development, and the Melnea Hotel and Residences, a 135-room hotel and residential apartment building, will include 8,000 square feet of retail space.

“Dudley Square is primed for an economic resurgence, it’s primed to return to that stature,” Barros said.

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The growth was spurred in large part by the renovation of the Bolling building, a symbol of the neighborhood’s rich history, as a thriving retail and transit hub, and — when the structure was boarded up, tagged with graffiti — a sign of its neglect.

Today, the Bolling houses more than 500 Boston Public Schools workers, as well as the Roxbury Innovation Center, and ground-floor tenants such as Dudley Café, a boutique, and an eye doctor’s office.

In August, the city solicited proposals for the 7,800-square-foot space at the corner of Washington and Warren streets, expressing interest in a restaurant, a major performance space, or a meeting space that would “activate Dudley Square with new ideas for family-friendly entertainment and initiatives.” The city is reviewing those responses, officials said.

Cheryl Straughter plans to open a restaurant at the current Tasty Burger site in Dudley Square.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Cheryl Straughter plans to open a restaurant at the current Tasty Burger site in Dudley Square.

“The Bolling building has activated the center and has been that ball of light in the middle,” said Bing Broderick, executive director of the nonprofit community group Haley House, which runs food and shelter programs and ran Dudley Dough.

Throughout the neighborhood, though, several other buildings remain boarded up, yet to play a role in the area’s resurgence. And residents and passersby say the city needs to address crime and safety concerns, especially after dark.

In February, a 15-year-old pulled a .40-caliber semiautomatic firearm on another teenager who went into the Bolling building with his mother to register for school. The gun jammed and no one was injured.

Tony Nicks, 30, who went by the Bolling recently to watch his cousin play piano in the public space, said he generally avoids the area at night, when prostitution and open drug use become more prevalent.

He supports the city’s vision for later hours in Dudley but added, “I’m not sure what kind of people would come. . . . Nothing good happens.”

Mark Pijanowski, a public schools employee who has been at the Bolling building for the last several years, said he jumps on a bus at the end of work each day, bound for his home in Dorchester. He appreciates some of what has happened in the neighborhood, including the acoustic music at Dudley Café, but said “it’s not moving fast enough.”

“I do respect the neighborhood. I try, I’m giving it a chance,” he said, though he added, “There’s not too much in this area to do.”

One recent evening at Tasty Burger, an original anchor tenant in the Bolling building, it seemed there were more workers than patrons. One of the only occupied tables was a group of men playing chess, and they said they went there only because the local branch library is closed for renovations.

One of the men, who identified himself as Mr. Cobbs, said they could have gone to the Grove Hall library, but they don’t want to leave the area.

“What you have to do is offer places to bring to the neighborhood,” he said.

City officials agreed, though they also say the effort should be led by minority-owned businesses that represent the neighborhood. Tasty Burger, a corporate chain, agreed to as much, saying in a statement that it was moving in December “to make way for a great local restaurateur,” though the company did not identify Straughter by name.

“This local businesswoman’s concept offers a full menu with a focus on evening business, which we believe is the type of activation that will help drive the desired traffic to Dudley during under-utilized meal times,” the company said.

Straughter said she plans to name the restaurant after her granddaughter, Maya Soleil, and call it Soleil, the French word for sun — bringing a bit of sunshine to Dudley Square, as she put it.

She said she will offer Southern-style cuisine, including sandwiches — similar to the restaurant she ran in Grove Hall at a time when that neighborhood was undergoing transition.

“Dudley as a community needs what other parts of the city have experienced over the years,” she said, adding, “I’m going to use the spirit and effort I had in Grove Hall to do the same thing in Dudley.”

Pinckney, who worked in the restaurant and hospitality business for several years before helping run Dudley Dough, said he, too, wants another try at a restaurant, even as he was preparing pizzas for the farewell gathering.

“You’ll see me,” he told patrons, pushing another pizza into the oven. “This neighborhood is up and coming.”

Kim Janey (left), city councilor-elect for District 7, made pizzas with team leader Luther Pinckney, 45, of Roxbury, during a party on the last night for Dudley Dough.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Kim Janey (left), city councilor-elect for District 7, made pizzas with team leader Luther Pinckney, 45, of Roxbury, during a party on the last night for Dudley Dough.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.