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Paul McMorrow

The twin phoenixes: Filene’s and Ferdinand

The two pits have gaped since 2008, the fences around them keeping lonely watch over a pair of Boston neighborhoods that should be humming, if not for the holes in their centers. Both craters sprang from game-changing development projects brought low by a sputtering economy, and both opened wounds that spread far beyond the excavation footprints that construction crews began digging and then had to abandon.

The pits at the Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing and the Ferdinand building in Dudley Square aren’t often discussed together. But they materialized alongside each another, and they’ve blighted neighborhoods together. So there’s poetry in the fact that, in 2013, Filene’s and the Ferdinand will be rising in unison.

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Dudley Square, Roxbury’s commercial heart, feels worlds away from Downtown Crossing. The two neighborhoods are close, though — a straight 2-mile shot down Washington Street — and they’re up against similar obstacles. Both are historic commercial centers still struggling to shrug off the rot that settled over much of Boston in the 1950s and ’60s. Both pinned a neighborhood’s turnaround hopes to centrally located development projects that wound up failing — and magnifying the blight around them. So, there are huge stakes attached to the resumption of the Filene’s and Ferdinand projects.

The Filene’s redevelopment project was, for years, the embodiment of Boston’s recessionary shortcomings. Originally envisioned as an office, hotel, condominium, and retail complex that would remake Boston’s struggling downtown shopping district, the Filene’s project lost its financing, lost its lead office tenant, and went belly-up in the fall of 2008. Instead of sparking a downtown renaissance, the block-long crater cast a pall over the whole neighborhood.

Now, a year after a new developer, Millennium Partners, took control of the project, the Filene’s block is poised to transform a lagging stretch of the city. Millennium’s planned 625-foot tower will contain 600 condominiums and apartments, putting bodies on streets that go dark far too early. Just as importantly, the adjacent Burnham Building is attracting interest from the sorts of creative commercial users that once steered clear of the area. (Banker & Tradesman recently reported that Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency currently housed in a sleek Back Bay office tower, is considering moving into the historic low-rise structure.) Work on both buildings should begin this year. Just the promise of the Filene’s block’s imminent turnaround has been enough to boost neighboring landlords’ business.

The Filene’s block draws intense scrutiny — attention that makes the site seem unique. But it isn’t. As critical to Dudley Square as Filene’s is to Downtown Crossing, the Ferdinand building is another historic commercial icon that the economy left behind.

Ferdinand’s, a former furniture store, was once the cornerstone of Roxbury’s commercial district. The flatiron-style building avoided the wrecking ball during the urban renewal era in the 1960s. But when the city took the building by eminent domain in 2006, it had been vacant for decades. City officials began redevelopment work on the Ferdinand block in 2008 but shelved the effort shortly afterward. The hole in the ground they left behind sat dark and vacant for years, before the city renewed its commitment to the project.

They’re both turnaround plans with ambitions beyond individual buildings.

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Now, there’s a crane towering over the Ferdinand block and bracing on the building’s historic facade. Construction crews are pouring foundations for a new $115 million headquarters for the Boston Public Schools. Steel will begin rising in the next few months.

The Ferdinand building’s recent incarnation — a hollow brick facade, ringing a hole in the ground — has been every bit as damaging to businesses around Dudley Square as the Filene’s pit has been to Downtown Crossing. And the promise of the Ferdinand’s current redevelopment, which will bring hundreds of workers and new retail space to a corner of town that desperately needs both, mirrors the promise Filene’s presents. Both turnaround plans aim to remake whole neighborhoods by reactivating key historic blocks. And this year, the work begins in earnest.

These are the barometers that matter. Despite all the laudable projects that got underway last year, no city can claim it’s enjoying a resurgent economy as long as there are pits of blight festering in its critical commercial hubs. These are the projects that show Boston regaining its footing — especially with the neglected, forgotten Ferdinand setting the pace for Filene’s.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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