Directly across from Boston’s new Bolling Municipal Building is an ugly rebuttal to the years of hard work and the $100 million-plus that activists and city officials have poured into Dudley Square: a grim row of vacant stores.
Out front is one long unbroken run of rusting metal grates, beat-up signs, and decaying paint, while the area around back is littered with crushed beer cans, pillows, women’s lingerie, and signs of squatters. Down Washington Street are several more vacant storefronts.
“It’s depressing to see,” Annette Hill Green, head attorney at the Donald E. Green law offices in a neighboring, well-kept building. “It doesn’t create the vibrancy you would like to see in a commercial district.”
Long a busy crossroads, Dudley Square received a boost when the city’s school department relocated to the Bolling Building. Officials are now trying to woo restaurants and other businesses to add more life to the area after work hours, and a developer is pushing to build a tower there.
Many neighborhoods have a few empty storefronts, but those in Dudley Square line a prominent stretch of Washington Street, underscoring the difficulty city officials and activists face in completing the business district’s revival. The city can’t do much to force the landlord, listed on public records as Chang Kyu Jeon, to fix up and reopen the stores, because the properties are not abandoned; the taxes are paid up, and neighbors say they occasionally see signs of upkeep, however minimal.
The empty buildings were held out as an example during a recent public hearing on a proposal by several city councilors to hit landlords with a so-called “vacancy fee.” Councilor Matt O’Malley has questioned whether some owners are deliberately keeping properties empty in hopes of fetching higher rents; a hefty fee, he said, could prod some into filling their buildings quickly.
“You have the right to own property, but long-term empty space affects the rest of the community and leads to negative” effects, William Poff-Webster, O’Malley’s lead staffer, said.
Longtime activist Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets, has been working with Jeon to reopen the stores. Jeon’s situation is complicated, Stanley said, suggesting there is no one solution for empty storefronts across the city, many with their own circumstances.
Stanley said Jeon is often in Korea, which has made it hard for him to address the empty storefronts. Because Jeon isn’t an American citizen, he has had difficulty getting money into the country, Stanley said, though he recently hired a US banker.
The Boston Globe was not able to reach Jeon for comment, and Stanley said she has struggled to remain in contact with him.
The properties once held a women’s clothing store and several bargain outlets, but Jeon closed the stores because the sewage and sprinkler systems did not pass inspection. Since then, she said, Jeon has gone back and forth with the Fire Department, spending thousands on new equipment. Jeon also had to install a new roof and clean out what former tenants had left behind, Stanley said.
“Most of these developments are really tough to do, and getting the money to do them is even tougher,” Stanley said. “A number of developers have come in with a lot of different ideas
. Jeon has to make a decision about what to do with the property, and that’s not an easy decision. We’re willing to help him put it together when it’s ready.”
The Town of Arlington adopted a vacancy fee in 2016 after experiencing its own run of long-term vacant properties. By Boston standards, the amount is modest: $400 a year on commercial buildings vacant for more than 90 days, with certain exemptions. After the fee was adopted, the number of vacancies in Arlington Center, the town’s main business district, declined to six, from 17.
Allison Carter, Arlington’s economic development coordinator, said the fee led to a productive dialogue with the owners of each property, resulting in some cases in innovative ways to fill vacant spaces with art installations or pop-up retail operations.
“We have a much more regular line of communication with the commercial property owners who have vacant properties, so we know a lot more about why they are vacant and why they are having a hard time finding tenants,” Carter, said. “It works to get some spaces filled that have been stubbornly vacant for a period of years.”
In Dudley Square, Joyce is in effect serving as the liaison to Jeon. The neighborhood is taking steps in the right direction, Stanley said, but still needs more private investors.
“Investors still consider this area [Dudley Square] a very risky area to do business in, so it’s just not as easy as people think to develop a property,” Stanley said. “You get more people that come and are interested, but very few get to the lease-signing stage at any of the properties.”
Alex Gailey can be reached at email@example.com.