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.
Finding space for Haley House would be a good start. The nonprofit group that started out in 1966 as a soup kitchen in the South End has not only stayed true to its original social vision but expanded into Dudley Square with a terrific bakery and cafe. The food, conversation, and hospitality are consistently good. People who are down on their luck feel as much at home in the cafe as the neighborhood’s movers and shakers. It would make so much sense for the group to extend its reach by bringing organic pizza and homemade ice cream into a commercial space at the Ferdinand Building. Hundreds have signed a petition in favor of Haley House’s application. And by midweek, it appeared that the selection committee might actually reconsider a bad decision.
A loyal streak runs through residents of Roxbury. There are not many places in the city where a Foot Locker can set up shop next door to a mom-and-pop sneaker store and it’s the Foot Locker that goes out of business. But it happened a few years ago in Dudley Square.
“There are organizations and businesses that have been here and represent what the future could and should look like,’’ said Roxbury activist Kim Janey, who co-chairs Discover Roxbury. The homegrown arts organization was also unsuccessful in its bid for space in the Ferdinand Building.
Ferdinand’s planners want to see the lunch places on the ground floor turn into dinner places with table service in the evening. State lawmakers could help by lifting the cap on liquor licenses, which are few and far between in Roxbury. But why stop there? After dinner, restaurant space at the Ferdinand could be transformed into a nightclub and lounge. Such entertainment venues are also rare in Roxbury. The concept works well at Dbar on Dorchester Avenue, another comeback neighborhood.
Prosperous neighborhoods don’t need to be posh. But they need the right mix. The Ferdinand block in Roxbury is now in position to show how it’s done.