Richard Taylor gazed at the Boston skyline in 1975, eyes focused on the Prudential Tower. From the roof of his Dudley Square townhouse, he had a great view of the skyscraper — a symbol of the city’s next step in urbanization. In that moment, Taylor knew his neighborhood would eventually be touched by that kind of investment.
Now, he can finally see that day just over the horizon.
Taylor is one of the most prominent Black developers in Boston. With his partners, he is bringing an ambitious project dubbed Nubian Square Ascends to the neighborhood, which was renamed in 2019. It is a 97,000-square-foot, $120 million endeavor — financed in part by equity crowdfunding from local residents — that will sit on the city-owned Blair Lot. The development will include 15 condo units for artists, a life sciences training center, a 300-space parking lot, a performance hall, and a food market.
It’s all part of a wave of new projects attempting to bring the growth Taylor predicted nearly five decades ago to Nubian Square over the next several years. The Blair Lot is one of many plots, most owned by the city and left vacant for decades, that are now being developed.
“The bad news is there was chronic disinvestment, which created the vacant lots,” said Taylor. “The good news is you’ve got vacant lots so that you can, in fact, do something like this.”
The Globe recently spoke with 10 leaders involved in redeveloping Nubian Square, most of them Black and with longstanding ties to the community. They believe there’s an opportunity to restore the square to its former glory in the first half of the 20th century, when it was Boston’s second-most-popular commercial destination, behind downtown. They also hope to attract tourists and patrons from Greater Boston, while improving the neighborhood’s economy for residents.
But there are complications to this rebirth. Namely, whether a balance can be struck between the need to bring in outside capital and the initiative to build wealth among the low-income population of Nubian Square, with sensitivity to the redevelopment history of the neighborhood, where other attempts at revitalization have fizzled.
According to Norm Stembridge, cochairperson of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, this iteration is different because it’s led by “people who have proven their expertise in development and the ability to get financing.”
Stembridge said that seeking out local people of color with track records as developers was intentional. “We told [the city], basically, that we needed developers in this section of Boston who look like you and me, who we knew, who we thought could collaborate with other developers and bring much-needed activity back into the community,” he said.
On a Thursday morning last month, Robert George, executive director of Roxbury Main Streets, a nonprofit focused on growing local businesses in the neighborhood, stood in a circle of people outside the Nubian Station Dunkin’. Beside him were representatives from the B-2 police station’s community service office, the Department of Public Works, the Inspectional Services Department, and the Boston Public Health Department.
They gathered — as they have for the last three years — to take an hourlong walk through Nubian Square, checking in on local business owners while also connecting residents to jobs, treatment, food, and housing resources.
The Thursday crew is laying the groundwork for what’s to come. “I see a lot of the development plans and programs on the drawing board for Roxbury, and Nubian Square specifically, and I’m excited,” said George. “It’s going to change the city [and] how folks around the Commonwealth relate to Roxbury.”
The list of projects coming to the square runs the gamut. Jazz Urbane Cafe aims to provide world-class entertainment and nightlife. The Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, which is moving to the neighborhood from the South End next year, promises education for high-paying careers. Nubian Markets will bring Afrocentric grocery shopping and dining. A variety of mixed-use, mixed-income housing projects with ownership opportunities are in progress.
Reggie Jean, executive director of Haley House, is involved in one such project. The Haley House Bakery Cafe has been in Nubian Square since 2005, but it is undergoing an expansion that would add affordable housing and maker-space for artists, additional retail space, and a new storefront for the cafe.
Jean thinks it’s important that nonresidents of the square take advantage of the amenities. “People need to know about how great our communities are,” said Jean, who grew up shopping in the neighborhood with his mother, “because if you’re just going on what you’ve heard, we’re going to be mislabeled, misrepresented.”
But Jean also wants to serve the local community. He plans to continue Haley House’s transitional employment program for formerly incarcerated people and community dinners with “pay what you can” pricing at the cafe.
Luther Pickney, 50, who has lived in Roxbury his whole life, said he knows “Nubian Square is going to be a different community” after development, but he hopes current residents will be employed by and become owners of the new businesses.
In part to create such opportunities, the Boston Planning and Development Agency guidelines for developing on city-owned land in Roxbury stipulate that there must be diversity among the business owners who operate the storefronts that are created.
Arthur Jemison, chief of planning and director of the BPDA, understands the complicated role his agency has played in the neighborhood’s history. But he hopes the Nubian Square developments will define a new chapter in the relationship.
“It’s one of these things where the tools that can be used to make a negative change can also be used to make a positive one,” Jemison said.
For his part, Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, thinks the square’s reinvigoration will serve as a model for the rest of Boston. “Roxbury is the heartbeat of the city,” he said. “I do believe this is an important shift in the way that the city addresses this issue.”
Clara Bell, 80, remembers what Dudley Square was like at its peak. She grew up in Lower Roxbury in the 1940s and ‘50s, when the square was a majority white neighborhood and a bustling commercial center.
There was Blair’s Foodland for groceries; Woolworth’s five-and-dime store for everything else; and Ferdinand’s Blue Store, which attracted people from all over New England to buy furniture, she said. The lifeblood of those businesses was the elevated Orange Line T along Washington Street, which connected the neighborhood to downtown and, as Bell remembers, doubled as a social spot for young people.
“Everybody rode the T and everybody met at Dudley Station to talk about the day and what they were going to do for the weekend,” Bell said.
But the economic prosperity would not last.
Black people from the South migrated to Boston en masse during the ‘40s and ‘50s. By the late ‘50s, the neighborhood had shifted from largely white to majority Black, according to Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society. The departure of the white population should have created a prime opportunity for Black residents to become owners of businesses and homes. However, Rushing said, a combination of discriminatory redlining practices and urban renewal plans prevented that from happening.
Banks refused to provide favorable loans to Black Americans in urban neighborhoods throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, including in Roxbury, said Rushing. The city’s urban renewal plan also allowed it to seize land labeled as blighted, which meant demolishing housing and businesses and hollowing out the neighborhood. That legacy of limited financial opportunity still looms today.
“People are openly asking the question: Is Nubian Square ready for that investment?” said Turahn Dorsey, co-CEO of Jazz Urbane Cafe, who added that Boston has only recently become a friendlier market for investment in entrepreneurs of color. “I think the opportunity in front of us is to figure out how not to cobble together and piecemeal the resources that are needed to fully bring it online, but to now make the outsize capital investment to make sure that all of it happens.”
A complicating factor is that “long-term residents are experiencing some development fatigue,” said Leslie Reid, CEO of Madison Park Development Corp., which has been building resident-led projects in the square since the 1960s. “Inherent in change is a certain sense of loss of what you knew. There is an equilibrium or balance that we need to achieve.”
Much of the recent development in Roxbury has been the construction of affordable housing. According to city data from 2021, with 10,850 income-restricted units (or 54 percent of total housing available), Roxbury has both the most and highest proportion of affordable rental housing of any neighborhood in Boston.
City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who represents Roxbury, believes that affordable housing is important, but that too much of it concentrates poverty without offering economic opportunity. She envisions a neighborhood where entertainment, green space, commercial opportunities, mixed-income rentals, and affordable homeownership options are all abundant.
The development plan for the 7.7-acre plot known as P3 in Lower Roxbury, just outside of Nubian Square, aims to bring all of that by 2028. The proposal would house an Embrace Boston museum and policy center; multiple parks, pathways, and plazas; retail space that emphasizes local businesses and vendors; a life sciences center that would create 2,400 permanent jobs; and 144 affordable homeownership units at an average price of 65 percent of the area median income, along with 164 affordable rental units ranging from 30 to 80 percent of the AMI — which the sale of the life sciences buildings will subsidize.
It’s the latest in a long line of attempts to develop the largest vacant parcel owned by the city, where previous plans have floundered because of shaky financial backing and low levels of community support, a result of concerns about gentrification.
“We’re really happy to see what is now coming to P3: a diverse development team, strong mix of truly affordable housing, opportunities for good jobs, working with local schools like Madison Park on some of the construction — so really intentional at every level,” said Armani White, executive director of Reclaim Roxbury.
Forging trust with a community still haunted by the specter of urban renewal is perhaps the developers’ greatest hurdle. BDPA requires developers building on city-owned land in Roxbury to have community meetings before their proposal is selected, and then they must continue meeting with residents throughout the construction process.
But Troy Depeiza — cofounder of DREAM Collaborative, an architecture and development firm working on the Haley House renovation and P3 — said going to those meetings isn’t enough.
“They need to see you on a Saturday going to Tropical Foods and shopping. You’re not just there to make a dollar because you’re a developer,” he said. “You’re really part of the fabric, so then the buy-in is a lot easier.”
Depeiza added that Nubian Square residents are often “shocked” that there are Black minds behind those projects and “that you’re sincerely trying to understand their neighborhood, and then proposing a solution to actually solve the existing problems.”
In an effort to bridge the various projects, Franklin Cummings Tech plans to use the life sciences labs across the street at Nubian Square Ascends in its biotech programming. Aisha Francis, president of the technical college, said she has also talked with Jean and Haley House about the institute providing services for the reentry and recovering populations they serve.
“In many cases, we’re working with the same families,” said Francis. “We want to make sure that we’re really cross-talking as much as possible so that we can be engaged in this kind of neighborhood uplift.”
Nick Brooks, a principal at DREAM, said the work being done by Black leaders in Nubian Square this time around stands out.
“You might call it crazy, but there is a lot of character that we see probably from just our own backgrounds and upbringings, also because of some of our attachment to history,” he said. “Instead of seeing the weeds, we see the flowers.”