Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ferdinand's in Dudley Square

Engaged citizens of Roxbury testified Monday night about the development of Ferdinand's Complex in Dudley Square at a public hearing called by Councilor Chuck Turner.

First, Kairos Shen, Director of Planning for the BRA, gave a brief presentation. It is the Mayor's goal, he said, in this term in office to tackle some of the most challenging projects left undone. The Mayor has tasked the BRA with coming up with a plan for Ferdinand's by the end of 2010.

The City had been looking at the project as something it would develop alone as a capital investment project, Shen said. The City and BRA would like to build something that is the best possible solution for the area and, due to the state of the economy has had to scale back earlier, larger plans to a smaller project of 80,000-125,000 square feet, he said. Even this smallest project would cost an estimated $110 million, which is what the City usually spends in an entire year on capital investment projects, he said. The BRA is currently engaged in exploring a palette of other options including partnering with developers or having developers lead the project.

Then, engaged Roxbury had its say and here are a few excerpts.

Donovan Walker, "a person who has been trying to develop Dudley and Roxbury for the last six years" said the site needs a mixed use 20 story hi-rise, with expensive condos on the upper levels, offices in the middle, and retail and restaurants on the ground. To develop the building into offices which close at 5 p.m. would be a big mistake, he said.

Karl Nurse, Chairman of the Massachusetts Black Business Alliance, used the development of Faneuil Hall as an analogy for developing Dudley. The "(Roxbury) community has always been investing and it can move in that direction," he said regarding the generation of capital for the project.

Kelley Chunn who runs a marketing business out of Hibernian Hall said that where there is a will there is a way and developing Ferdinand's is simply a matter of political will. She said it's "only fair that the wheel turn around and we get our moment", and that positive change be aggressively fostered in Dudley Square, as it has been in other parts of the city.

Fred Fairfield, who developed the old Roxbury Boy's Club, told of how as a child he would walk with his mother each week to Ferdinand's to make a layaway payment on the furniture she bought there. At 70 years of age, he hopes to be able to show a vibrant new Ferdinand's to his 6-year-old granddaughter before she becomes a grandmother.

Joyce Stanley, of Dudley Square Main Streets described herself as a preservationist and would consider it a loss to the city if the Ferdinand's building is lost. "We have the world in Dudley," she said, referring to the rich cultural diversity in the area, and the Ferdinand's development is an opportunity for the city to celebrate new immigrants as well as all the people who live and work in the city.

Barry Gaither of Williams Street called for a re-imagining of Ferdinand's that is creative and provocative. The development, he said, should be a dramatic, interesting and visually compelling building which creates some excitement in the Square.

Sarah Ann Shaw said she was having deja vu all over again. "We come to meetings, we are promised over and over again and nothing happens. If you say you'll do something, keep your word. Too many promises have been broken".

Jamarhl Crawford called on the BRA and the city councilors present (Linehan, Turner, Arroyo) to use their influence to get the police to push the drugs and prostitution out of Dudley so the district is attractive to new business.

Nadine Nelson, Dudley resident and small business owner said if you look at a map of Boston, Roxbury looks like a heart and it is the heart of the hub and the way that Dudley has been neglected is a "metaphor for the treatment of people of color". People don't want to come here, she said, and she can't understand how the South End and JP, both "sketchy" places at one time, have improved while Dudley "can't change". "I do feel safe here because there's no one here," she said. "I want to be able to spend my money here".

Councilor Chuck Turner said that rather than look to white developers to finance the project, black business leaders need to step forward with capital.

Councilor Felix Arroyo said that it's important that the project be finished so it can help to reconcile "the public perception of Dudley and the reality of Dudley, two different things".

The whole shebang was videotaped and information on viewing it may be found here.

Ferdinand's, established in 1869, was once "the oldest and largest furniture store in New England", according to its facade, and Dudley Square had a history as a bustling, vibrant cultural and economic center.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Storrow Drive As It Should Be...

Without cars, thanks to Hub on Wheels.

It began with great weather yesterday morning. Riding along the Neponset Riverway and the Harbor became windy and a little chilly. It's really fun riding on Storrow Drive and without have to suck in vehicle exhaust along the way. Two of the best days in Boston are Fourth of July and Hub on Wheels Day for that very reason.

Riders line up on State Street.
Riders gather at City Hall Plaza.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mission Church Grammar School Rehabbed for Harvard

Double shifts of workers are sandblasting the interior brick walls of the 122-year-old Mission Church Grammar School on Smith Street. According to a worker on site, who requested anonymity, rehab of the building is scheduled to be completed by February when the Harvard School of Public Health Operations Department will lease part of it.

The building has been vacant for about six or seven years, according to 84-year-old John Clifford, a lifelong Mission Hill resident, who attended the grammar school from 1931-1939.

According to Clifford, prior to the recent vacancy the school was home to a city of Boston grammar school for six or seven years and prior to that, was a temporary home to the Boston Latin School while it was being renovated.

The Grammar School is sandwiched between St. Alphonsius Hall, a former recreation center and auditorium, and what was at one time a convent, lodging 44 nuns for the school. Neither of those buildings is at this time being rehabbed.

Clifford remembers being part of a class of 56 children in the grammar school which enrolled up to 2000 students in its heyday.

"There were seven rows of eight sections," he said, "with boys on one side and girls on the other. I didn't mind. It was satisfaction. We got homework every night."

For Clifford and his classmates, school started each day with Mass at 7:30. They'd walk home at 8 for breakfast and come back to school from 9 -noon. At noon they walked home for lunch and then school continued from 1 -3 p.m. After school, they'd change clothes and go "up the hill" to the park to play football or kick the bar, a game involving kicking, not a bar, but a bicycle tire.

Asked if he'd miss the school and the history it represented Clifford said, "People who went to school there and graduated from there are the history, not the goddamned building, not the bricks and mortar, to my way of thinking."

Monday, September 20, 2010

One Opinion of Harvard in Allston

So I'm riding down Western Ave. in Allston on Saturday, which I don't often do, past the old WGBH studios and the site of the Harvard mega project that isn't and I notice that they've erected some really nice fencing and landscaping around the huge site.

And I'm thinking, "well, that's a good thing - they're at least taking care of the property". And I'm thinking, "ya know, just goes to show why I'm not in finance 'cause I understand that they lost 30 percent of their endowment but $28 billion, (billion!) still seems like an awful lot of money to me. Sheesh. What do I know."

And then I saw this opinion.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wanted: Visionary Artist Homebuyer with Cash

Must be willing to live on the edge (in Roxbury) and eschew market forces. Desire to inhabit an innovative "delightful" new dwelling, the construction of which rankles the BRA, realtors, and banks, essential. To apply send a notice of interest to these people. But do it fast or the opportunity to be part of a truly cutting edge, sustainable housing development will be lost.

Highland Park based design/build company, Placetailor is committed to the ultimate sustainable development: small and very, very energy efficient.

The problem is that "market forces don't want you to build small and smart," said Simon Hare, Placetailor contractor. "They want you to build bigger and dumber".

In constructing a three-unit dwelling on the corner of Highland and Linwood Streets, Placetailor "naively thought we could raise the bar and pull things in the other direction but at this point we are overwhelmed by the market," Hare said.

Hare and his colleagues want to build to the most stringent existing energy efficiency guidelines, Passive House.

The architectural plan has gone through several iterations. It currently consists of one one-bedroom unit of 550 square feet inspired by the 100 year old Japanese silk maker's house in the Children's Museum, one two-bedroom unit of 880 square feet and one three-bedroom of 1200 square feet which, as the most traditional unit, is considered by Placetailor to be the Grand Dame of the project.

Because the units are smaller than what is typically built in this country, (current trends aside) banks are hesitant to make loans on the units, which cost more per square foot than ordinary construction. Likewise, realtors don't want to sell units that don't fit the "bigger and dumber" housing model they believe all Americans want. And the BRA, Hare said, "doesn't want to upset the neighborhood which is conservative but the least of our worries".

"The right thing to do for a sustainable project is efficiency, efficiency, efficiency," said Hare. But Placetailor is also "trying to make the units delightful, inspiring places to live in and grown old in," he said.

Shortly after purchasing the weed choked lot back in April, Placetailor began making it a better place by erecting a white picket fence, and planting flowers and shrubs. They later added a community bulletin board to the property to provide enhanced community communication.

This past weekend, Placetailor took a break from the project to determine how they will move forward with construction - as small and smart as they originally envisioned or something closer to the bigger and dumber model that the market seems to think is a good idea.

Without visionary, solvent buyers the market may win.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eid Al-Fitr in Roxbury

Was awakened this morning by the sound of prayers being sung. Five blocks away about 3000-5000 people had assembled in Madison Park High Football field to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

It was a veritable salmagundi of nationalities and languages.
Happy Ramadan. Happy Rosh Hashanah.