In the two decades since facilities owned by Digital Equipment Corporation and Stride Rite closed, taking hundreds of jobs out of Roxbury, few areas of Boston have been teased with promises of redevelopment like the Melnea Cass Boulevard corridor. At various junctures, the area has been touted for a new Boston Garden, a convention and sports megaplex, a 12-screen movie theater, and a biotech hub. During the jostling for a megaplex, the Rev. Charles Stith said development would be “reflective of Dr. King’s dream of economic empowerment.” A decade later, the Bay State Banner described the corridor as “a wasteland of overgrown weeds, discarded umbrellas, liquor bottles, trash, and vacant lots.”
Finally, though, there’s a glimmer of hope for the boulevard, whose namesake was an influential advocate for women’s suffrage and civil rights. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has tentatively designated two firms, Urbanica and Madison-Tropical, to develop two parcels facing each other on the boulevard between Shawmut Avenue and Washington Street. On one side will be Urbanica’s $63 million complex that includes a 10-story, 150-room hotel, and a five-story residential and retail building. Urbanica wants to include a restaurant and a nightclub. On the other side will be Madison-Tropical’s modern replacement for the Tropical Foods supermarket. The old market will be rehabilitated into a retail and residential building and joined by a new building providing 66 residences and more retail space.
If these developments pan out, they’ll be less flashy than some of the megaprojects proposed in past years — but more helpful in rebuilding the urban fabric of Roxbury. Darnell Williams, chairman of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, stressed the need for commercial activity that generates revenue.
Too often, inner-city development results in a disproportionate share of municipal buildings that neither add to the tax base nor create a buzz of vitality after hours. “We want Roxbury to be a choice where maybe you don’t have to go all the way to Jamaica Plain, Braintree, or Framingham to shop, or you can sit down for a good meal and have a glass of vino,” Williams said.
If the projects successfully mesh with other apartment, retail, and museum development plans in the Dudley Square area — and if the corridor’s traffic woes can be alleviated — Melnea Cass Boulevard can once and for all cut down the wasteland of weeds and become the dynamic community so many thought it could be.