The 8-acre plot of land in Roxbury known as Parcel 3 has alternately tantalized and frustrated developers for decades.
Yes, decades. That’s how long this piece of earth across the street from Boston Police Headquarters has been an underutilized eyesore, a symbol of failure, awaiting the Right Moment to take off.
Through booms and busts, nothing has worked.
Finally though, there are tangible signs that change is coming.
Two high-powered development groups, one led by Tom O’Brien’s HYM Investments and Rev. Jeffrey Brown and the other led by New York real estate giant Tishman Speyer, have submitted proposals — competing visions, really — to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which is (once again) seeking a developer for the site.
While both are mixed-use developments, the Tishman proposal calls for building mostly housing on the site. The HYM notion focuses on lab space, but would include housing. Both proposals include many community benefits in their proposals; the Tishman group also partners with an impressive array of local Black developers and nonprofits, including veteran developer Richard Taylor and social entrepreneur Sheena Collier.
There’s no way to know where this process will end up, not least because the BPDA itself is in flux, with Mayor Michelle Wu planning on a major overhaul of the agency.
But the story of development in Roxbury is a tortured one that speaks to the city’s history of inequality.
Since the city took control of Parcel 3 as a potential site of urban renewal in the 1960s, dreams for it have come and gone, while little of substance has ever materialized.
That’s primarily because developers have long regarded Roxbury as a territory of high risk and little reward. Even during the past decade, when other parts of the city have boomed, everything announced for Parcel 3 has died a quiet death.
The same pattern of starts-and-stops has been true of other major government-owned parcels in the area, including the current headquarters of the BPD right across the street. Developers have gotten cold feet; public agencies that were supposed to move to Roxbury, to help anchor development, have been, outrageously, allowed to refuse.
When the Globe Spotlight Team did a series on racial inequity in the city in 2017, one of the most persistent areas where we found little progress was development.
One of the most-read pieces in that series was on the Seaport — the new neighborhood the city had brought to life featured almost no Black residents, or developers, or businesses. The Seaport stood — and pretty much stands — as a monument to how willing Boston has been to let development, and prosperity, pass communities of color by.
To be sure, some things have changed since then. There has been a concerted effort to bring people of color into the mix in development. The Massachusetts Port Authority, which controlled many parcels in the Seaport, has played a key role in that change. The city’s efforts have been more tentative. But the message has been received that representation matters.
Both of these development teams are spearheaded by people who take equity seriously, and have the financial juice to make their proposals happen. That clearly wasn’t the case of the most recent would-be developer at Parcel 3, who lost their designation in 2019 when they couldn’t fund their vision for it.
Still, the development of Parcel 3 is going to be an interesting test of whether that tide has turned. Obviously, it is one large project, not a neighborhood. But we’re about to find out just how far economic progress in this city is going to extend.
That will hinge, of course, not just on the selection of a developer, but on whether the selected group can bring the project to fruition.
Because as we’ve already seen in Roxbury many times, picking a developer does not guarantee anything.
People sometimes talk about social progress in terms of seats at the table, and there’s no question that Black people have too often been shut out of the rooms where big deals happen.
But opportunity also comes down to something else: cold, hard cash. People are more than willing to live, work, and thrive in Roxbury.
But we’re about to find out whether serious investors are willing to bet on that fact.