The competition for commercial space in the historic Ferdinand Building in Roxbury’s Dudley Square has been billed as a battle of the chains vs. small businesses with neighborhood roots. But it turns out they were both losers in the initial round of recommendations made in March by a seven-member selection committee to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Starbucks, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway didn’t make the cut to lease space on the ground floor of the future headquarters of the Boston School Department. Local favorites, including the venerated Haley House cafe, nonprofit Discover Roxbury, and restaurateur Darryl Settles also came up short. Instead, the selection committee, comprised mostly of city officials, chose the following six proposals from among 22 submissions: Tasty Burger, Clover Fast Food, Final Touch With Class apparel shop, Gallery Eye Care, Wilcox Hospitality Group/Parish Cafe, and ShantiBoston prepared foods. The list, however, remains somewhat fluid.
It’s great that so many private companies want a presence in the city-owned Ferdinand Building, once home to the region’s largest furniture business. The building has been empty for more than 30 years while political leaders engaged in idle chatter about resurrecting Dudley Square and the surrounding low-income neighborhood. Three years ago, former Mayor Thomas Menino announced and implemented a plan to move 500 School Department employees from their downtown headquarters to Dudley Square by 2015. Newly elected Mayor Martin Walsh has jumped aboard. And just as Menino and Walsh had hoped, private developers are now expressing interest in other city-owned parcels — including a portion of the 2100 block of Washington Street — in this formerly desolate section of Roxbury.
With so much new construction underway, the neighborhood looks like it is on the verge of turning the corner economically. It’s still somewhat sketchy. But walking around has a similar feel to the South End during the late 1970s, when that neighborhood began its transition from a run-down part of town to a desirable address. There are real concerns, however. For every Roxbury resident who longs to see the construction of upmarket shops and market-rate housing in Dudley Square, there are probably two who worry that low-income families will be pushed out by gentrification.
Architects and construction engineers associated with Shawmut Design and Construction figured out how to restore the Ferdinand Building on an irregular, triangular block. City planners, at least, should be able to find the right mix of tenants for 18,000 square feet of commercial space. They should see it as a microcosm of Boston’s challenge to create safe and attractive neighborhoods without driving out families of modest means.
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