The blank slate of Roxbury land known as “Parcel P3” has stumped mayors. Vexed a governor or two. Maybe even caused a city redevelopment director to weep in frustration.
Call it the P3 Curse. Should this weed-choked, nearly 8-acre lot on busy Tremont Street be home to a shopping center? Apartments? A cultural museum? A BJ’s Wholesale Club? How about all of the above, as with the most recent plan? And don’t forget some of the concepts floated over the years, such as the idea to put Partners HealthCare there. Or the New England Revolution. Or MassDOT headquarters.
As soon-to-be-former Mayor Marty Walsh heads to Washington, he will leave behind this piece of unfinished business: P3 remains the largest slice of surplus land in the city’s redevelopment inventory.
But the Boston Planning & Development Agency is making another go of it. With help from a $250,000 brownfields grant from MassDevelopment, city officials are embarking on a cleanup of lead in the parcel’s soil, to make it less expensive to develop. The agency also solicited ideas in a community forum on Feb. 22 about what should be built on P3, and what should not. Perhaps the most intriguing idea to emerge: splitting the site up into several pieces.
BPDA director Brian Golden swears this will be the year the curse gets lifted.
When have we heard that before?
Try April 2019. That’s when the BPDA gave final approval to hand over development rights to a team with a $700 million vision: Tremont Crossing would have been a 1.7-million-square-foot complex with two towers packed with apartments, a parking garage, a museum for African American culture, and a long list of retail and fitness tenants.
But by that October, financing fell apart. It was the final straw for the BPDA. Feldco Development, which joined up with Elma Lewis Partners about a decade earlier, wouldn’t get the ground-lease rights after all. After the agency granted 28 extensions, the most in recent memory for any project, Golden knew it was time to start anew.
Golden calls it one of his agency’s great unfinished projects. The city initially took the land 50-plus years ago for urban renewal. It was slated to be part of the doomed Southwest Expressway. Then came all those development ideas.
Now, Golden and his team are engaging the community, before a new bidding process begins. The goal is to pick a developer by year’s end, after formally seeking bids by sometime in early summer. They’ve learned a lot in recent years. The massive sewer main that traverses the site doesn’t necessarily have to be moved, for example, and the BJ’s probably wasn’t such a great choice for the neighborhood after all.
The next project would likely adhere to relatively new neighborhood standards spelled out in Plan: Nubian Square, a community-backed initiative that calls for at least two-thirds of any housing units built on public land in that part of the city to be income restricted.
Along with affordable housing, neighbors offered other suggestions. A business center. A cultural destination. Open space. The preference skewed toward moderate buildings, and away from Tremont Crossing-style megaprojects. Muge Undemir, a neighborhood planner with the BPDA, warned that while the site can be a lot of things at once, it can’t be everything to everyone.
Several forum participants suggested breaking up the site, which is across from the Boston police headquarters and near the Ruggles T station. If a large project isn’t feasible there, several smaller projects might have a better shot.
Golden seems warm to the idea of carving the parcel into four slices. Making the site “more digestible” for developers, as he puts it, could help draw more diverse participants — a goal for all city projects lately, but particularly important in the heart of the city’s Black community. Finances for smaller parcels might be easier to pencil out, particularly for smaller developers.
The last time this parcel was put out to bid was 2005, believe it or not. One thing that local leaders liked about Elma Lewis Partners way back when: the group’s neighborhood ties. Profits could flow back to the community.
If P3 does get broken up, maybe that admirable goal could be met. And maybe this curse finally can be broken.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.