Dudley Square hotel proposal is focus of debate
Roxbury opponents cite jobs, pay issues, even as city backs project
The patch of land near Dudley Square has lain fallow for more than half a century, a ragged monument to failed urban policies that left empty lots scattered across Roxbury.
But about two years ago, prospects brightened for Parcel 9, a fenced, city-owned yard by Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street that had been taken years ago to make way for a highway that never was.
Developers proposed a $42 million Marriott Residence Inn and apartments, a plan that appeared to be cruising toward City Hall approval, buoyed by the promise of jobs and future development. But then, last month, Boston officials abruptly halted a final vote.
A gathering wave of opposition swirled around the Parcel 9 revitalization. And it came right from the neighborhood. Residents and politicians complained that the hotel would not pay workers enough, and that unions would not be welcome.
But the opposition exposed deeper concerns: As Dudley Square prepares to celebrate the completion of a signature project, the renovation of the Ferdinand Building, residents fear losing control of their changing neighborhood. And developers of the hotel fear the opposition could doom their project and derail future investments in Roxbury.
“We need some room to compromise,” said Darnell Williams, who chairs the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, which the city hopes will settle the standoff. “The impact on Roxbury is enormous.”
Situated in the heart of Roxbury, Dudley Square is a hub of sandwich shops, beauty salons, and social service offices. More than 30,000 MBTA commuters trek through daily. For decades, the square, and the rest of Roxbury, sat ignored as new restaurants and apartment buildings dotted Fenway, South Boston, and downtown.
Former mayor Thomas M. Menino had vowed a transformation, targeting projects to anchor the square, inspire confidence, and attract private investments. But for a while, his administration was the only entity building there. A new police station was erected, sidewalks were spruced up, and the dreary entrance to the branch library got a facelift.
Menino’s restoration of the Ferdinand Building as the new home for the School Department is taking shape. His successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has also made Dudley a priority, singling it out for innovation and economic revival.
At the community’s edges, barren government lots are springing back to life. On Parcel 10, across the street from the hotel site, the new Tropical Foods grocery store has opened, a gleaming symbol of the neighborhood’s potential.
Then there is Parcel 9. In 2012, the Boston Redevelopment Authority tapped Urbanica Inc. to help redevelop it. Urbanica’s president, Kamran Zahedi, leads a team of investors called Melnea Partners LLC – which proposed a 108-room Marriott Residence Inn, 50 rental apartments, and street-level retail space.
It was a scaled-down version of the original plan. But when completed, the hotel would offer 40 full-time and six part-time jobs, with most of the workers hired from Roxbury, the developers promised. And there would be more, they said: links from Roxbury to the South End and improvements in public safety by increasing foot traffic after dark.
“This parcel has been a long time coming,’’ said Darryl Settles, an investor and one of the partners. “This issue is larger than Parcel 9. It’s about the redevelopment and the revitalization of Roxbury and Dudley Square.”
Zahedi said his team spent the past four years nurturing support from the redevelopment authority and the Roxbury oversight committee, charged with ensuring that any redevelopment boosts wealth in Roxbury. The hotel developers secured critical financing, including $5.3 million in equity from tax credits, $6 million in private equity from the hotel operator, and a $15 million construction loan.
“This is an area that is a little more challenging than others,’’ Zahedi said. “Most developers do not want to be the first to come here.”
The developers said they solicited several hotel operators, but only XSS Hotels — which operates in Chelsea, Needham, and Foxborough — agreed to join their partnership and put up substantial money. A call to XSS for comment was not returned.
The project seemed assured, with the BRA board set last month to give its final blessing. A groundbreaking was planned for May. But late in the process, opposition began to mount, leaving developers fretting that their work — including securing tax credits — could be undone.
Advocates say the neighborhood has been racked by high unemployment and economic neglect, and they cannot allow development to occur without ensuring residents benefit.
They formed a jobs coalition two years ago as development surged in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and fears emerged that many low-income residents might be pushed out.
The advocates began picketing outside the Ferdinand Building after noticing a lack of women and people of color working on the project. They protested the Tropical Foods construction site, complaining the developer reneged on a promise to pay construction workers $50 an hour.
And they established job standards for redeveloping public land, such as higher wages for workers – comparable to union pay – and the ability to organize.
“We are not trying to stop development, because we know we need development in Roxbury,’’ said Priscilla Flint, cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute in Grove Hall. “We just want people who live there to be able to work and stay there.”
On Parcel 9, advocates got developers to agree on higher wages for the hotel workers: Starting pay is $13.90 an hour and could climb.
But there was no accord on unionization.
The hotelier “has been clear from day one they were interested in the project and would fund it, but they would not be a union hotel,’’ Settles said.
City Councilor Tito Jackson said he cannot support a project that does not pay higher wages and allow workers the ability to unionize even if that means possibly sacrificing the hotel.
“The hotel partners have been unwilling to compromise, so why should the community compromise?’’ Jackson said. “What’s at stake here is whether or not people in the community will benefit.”
The Roxbury councilor said he rejects the argument that a failed hotel project would deter future investors, insisting there is plenty of development interest in the neighborhood.
“This is very fertile ground for anyone looking to the future,” Jackson said, noting Interstate 93 nearby and the neighborhood’s proximity to local universities and hospitals.
Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley has joined the residents’ fight, saying she will not settle for anything other than a “union hotel.’’
“Because Roxbury has been offline, because Roxbury has been denied, and because Roxbury has been deprived does not mean we have to accept whatever comes at the corner,” Pressley said.
Developers worry that without residents on board, their project might falter.
“Our hotel partners are getting concerned,’’ Zahedi said. “They do not want to be in this situation.”
At City Hall, Dana Whiteside, Boston’s deputy director for economic development, appeared hopeful the project could be salvaged.
“The project is not dead. It’s a very good project,’’ Whiteside said. “It’s a worthwhile project. We want to see it move forward in its best possible iterations.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com.