A South End development project begins — in Roxbury
When the proposed redevelopment of the Alexandra Hotel popped up on city planning agendas last fall, it was designated as a South End project that could revitalize an important corridor along Washington Street.
One problem: The hotel is located in Roxbury.
The city recognized the error in February, six months after it was first proposed, and alerted neighborhood leaders — a key step inviting residents to have a say in a project and its potential benefits. But Roxbury residents said that did not give them enough time to review the project — which is at the border with the South End — before it was approved in early March.
Now Roxbury residents are crying foul. They say it’s another snub against this historically black neighborhood that is fighting off gentrification and exploitation by developers associated with other, more affluent neighborhoods.
“My issue is that, as a result of the error in designation, they have not heard from many people — the people on the Roxbury side they need to hear from,” said Lauren Thompson, a Roxbury resident who attends church by the Alexandra. “If you don’t notify the right people, they’re not going to be there.”
The latest and perhaps most blatant example came with the recent opening of the Residence Inn by Marriott hotel on Washington Street near Dudley Square. The hotel was built on city-owned land and went through a Roxbury-driven planning and permitting process. The hotel even owns one of Roxbury’s limited neighborhood-specific liquor licenses.
But Marriott’s website labels the hotel as “Residence Inn Boston’s Downtown/South End — referring to more affluent (and whiter) neighborhoods.
The hotel’s main entrance is on Melnea Cass Boulevard, which some residents call a metaphor for the hotel effectively putting its back to Dudley Square. Until recently, according to Councilor Kim Janey, who represents the neighborhoods, the hotel was kicking out locals who tried to patronize the cocktail lounge. Now, she said, the hotel photocopies their IDs before they enter.
“None of that lives up to the expectations the community had when this first was proposed, and it felt very much like a slap in the face,” Janey said of the Marriott. “There is a long history of Roxbury being slighted, of being ignored, not being heard, not being invested in, and residents are frustrated. Understandably so.”
Colette Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Marriott, defended the hotel’s use of the Downtown/South End label, calling it a reference to Boston. She pointed out that the city hands out South End residential parking stickers in the same area (another point of contention for Roxbury residents; the city says it is trying to fix it).
Phillips noted that the hotel website also lists its address as 2001 Washington St., Roxbury. She said the hotel “is not rejecting its presence in Roxbury.”
“It’s insidious to suggest that a hotel that just made a $35 million investment in a community is rejecting the community,” she said.
John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, said in an interview that the city has reached out to local hotel management in response to the residents’ concerns. He said the managers have taken steps to engage the neighborhood, for instance by hiring local workers, and he said conversations are ongoing.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said separately that he recognizes residents could feel slighted, saying any Boston resident, from Roxbury or the South End, Dorchester or the Back Bay, carries a sense of neighborhood pride. But he also said that Roxbury has become a new focus of investment, which he called a positive change for the neighborhood.
Walsh did not comment on the Marriott’s marketing as a South End hotel specifically, but he said the city would address improperly identified neighborhoods.
“People who grew up in Roxbury know the boundaries of Roxbury. People who grew up in the South End, or different areas of the city, know where their areas are,” Walsh said. “A neighborhood has definite boundaries, and people should be proud of where they come from, and businesses, if they want to come into the city of Boston, should be proud of where they’re coming into.”
In Boston, a dispute over neighborhood boundaries is not new, and residents and officials have been debating the lines for decades. The US Postal Service will say a street is in one neighborhood, while Boston police will say another.
Byron Rushing, who represented Roxbury and the South End in the Legislature for decades, said the confusion is exacerbated because the area was a marsh and there was no clear delineation when Roxbury was annexed to Boston in 1868.
But, he said, the widely accepted, modern boundary, based on the most recent zoning maps for the city and the historical reaches of Boston’s black community, is Massachusetts Avenue, where many of the old jazz clubs were located in the 1940s and 50s.
That would leave a clearly defined Lower Roxbury, surrounding Melnea Cass Boulevard from Massachusetts Avenue to Dudley Square, that includes the Marriott location at the center. The Alexandra, on the other hand, sits right at the line between Roxbury and the South End. The city’s “neighborhood” locator, a municipal website listing official neighborhoods and representation on the City Council, lists the Alexandra as in Roxbury.
Rushing said such discrepancies may seem as mundane as the inscription of a parking decal, but they become personal to communities such as Roxbury that can claim legitimate histories of economic neglect at the expense of other, more affluent neighborhoods.
“It does matter,” Rushing said. He called the attempt to market the Marriott as in the South End “outrageous.” And while he acknowledged the Alexandra sits on the border, he called the area “the historic black community.”
“That’s why people are pissed, and they’re angry, because it’s never been resolved,” he said.
The Alexandra Hotel project has attracted interest from neighbors in the South End and Roxbury, both eager to see the restoration of the once majestic building, now an eyesore due to neglect. The Church of Scientology, which owns the property, has attempted to sell it to developers in recent years, though none of the talks had progressed this far.
Residents have had differing views of what should happen there, and who benefits, including the community incentives that come with a large-scale development. City officials say $100,000 will go to local projects, though those projects haven’t been decided.
The proposed development from Alexandra Partners would restore the Gothic-style façade, but it would more than double the building in height to 142 feet, or 13 stories — higher than any building in the area.
Jonathan Greeley, director of development review for the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said that agency officials recognized in early February the project was incorrectly classified for the South End and that officials consequently moved to notify Roxbury residents and community groups.
Greeley stressed that residents in the immediate area — from both neighborhoods — had been engaged throughout the process, some as far back as the fall.
At least three meetings were held in Roxbury before the development board took up the matter in early March, he said.
The project was advertised in the South End News newspaper as well as the Bay State Banner, which serves Boston’s black community. It was ultimately approved by the development agency, though it must still be reviewed by the Zoning Board of Appeals and the South End Landmark District Commission, which must approve the addition of stories that high in the neighborhood’s vicinity.
“It was not our intent to prioritize one [neighborhood] over another,” Greeley said.
Janey agreed the city should have done more to engage the entire neighborhood in the project sooner, but she stressed some residents have been involved.
“We need to move forward in a way with any type of development that will happen . . . to make sure the project will benefit the residents of that community,” she said.
But others doubt that all of Roxbury has had an equal say in the matter. Lloyd Fillion, who lives near the Alexandra Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue and opposes the proposed height of the project, questioned whether residents who were notified in February had fair time to review
it before it was approved in early March.
“This is a quick march for a building of this size, for changes of this magnitude,” he said, adding, “They ignored the powers that be as they were in Roxbury and leaned toward the South End.”