It has long been one of the most vexing questions in Boston’s development world: How to make Nubian Square — formerly known as Dudley — into a thriving neighborhood.
Now a pair of Nubian Square-based nonprofits have come up with something of a recipe to achieve that.
The American City Coalition and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City on Wednesday are releasing what they call a “market study” of Nubian Square. It’s a deep dive on the neighborhood’s housing and office markets, transportation challenges, and, crucially, opportunities for the kinds of restaurants, stores, and street-level small businesses that might make the historic pocket of Roxbury feel more like a place to come to than a place to pass through.
One of the key findings: There are many efforts to bring business to the neighborhood, but no one coordinating them. “There’s so much real potential in Nubian Square,” said Christine Araujo, executive director of TACC. “It just needs someone to steward it through, to make sure the many initiatives underway here don’t work at cross-purposes.”
The study comes amid a wave of planned development in the square, including its first high-rise residential building — the Rio Grande Tower proposed for Washington Street — and a string of city-owned lots being put out for bid by the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
That’s bringing serious investment, said ICIC CEO Steve Grossman, and new opportunity both for office space and, eventually, more middle-class residents, who would boost places to shop and eat on evenings and weekends. In recent years, restaurants have come and gone — popular neighborhood institution the Haley House Bakery Cafe recently reopened after being shuttered for a year — and several residents told the study’s focus groups that family-style, sit-down restaurants are among the neighborhood’s biggest needs.
To make the most of these opportunities — and better ensure the sort of development residents want — the neighborhood needs a consistent approach to community development, Grossman said.
“What we’ve lacked is a comprehensive strategy, a common sense practical road map to accelerate economic development,” he said. “We’ve never had a road map.”
The study recommends that one group, perhaps Dudley Square Main Streets, take the lead on marketing the neighborhood and working with city economic development officials to drive job growth. The Main Streets group’s longtime executive director, Joyce Stanley, recently retired, and board members are conducting interviews for her replacement.
One of those board members, Ronnette Taylor-Lawrence, said she would like more small businesses, but that connecting would-be restaurateurs with building owners willing to charge affordable rents has been a challenge.
“One of the things I’ve been looking for is a bakery,” said Taylor-Lawrence, who has owned a fire-safety firm in Dudley for nine years. “We don’t have a bakery. We don’t have an ice cream parlor. We don’t have a juice place.”
But, Taylor-Lawrence acknowledged, it will take more than marketing. Nubian Square is just a few blocks from the troubled intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, and has seen an increase in drug activity in the last couple of years. For the first time in nine years, Taylor-Lawrence said, she’s finding drug needles in her parking lot.
“You see a lot of homeless, there’s a lot of unemployment,” she said. “People are scared about coming to Dudley.”
Tackling that, she said, will take city and state help. Providing shelter and services for people struggling with addiction is well beyond what Nubian Square itself can do. Araujo, who called crime — real and perceived — the neighborhood’s “elephant in the room,” agreed that it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, urging more police patrols on foot and around the MBTA’s busy Dudley bus depot.
But, she said, everyone engaged in improving the neighborhood means well.
"These are all manageable things, she said. “Somebody just needs to put their mind to it.”