BOSTON Major construction of a new headquarters for the Boston Public Schools — a $115 million project at the site of the historic Ferdinand Building — is under way. It’s one of several development initiatives in Roxbury aimed at revitalizing the Dudley Square area.
Buses now roll in and out of Dudley Station — 35,000 people travel through here every day. There was a time when an elevated rail platform on the Orange Line was part of this important transportation hub, and the Ferdinand Building was part of its identity.
“It was once the largest home furnishing store in the U.S.,” said Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets. “When you came around on the elevated Orange Line you could get off the train and walk right into Ferdinand and buy your furniture.”
Stanley’s group is a nonprofit commercial revitalization organization that partners with the City of Boston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Ferdinand, Stanley says, is a signature building.
“It’s been closed since 1979 and people want it restored,” she said.
But past efforts to develop Dudley Square have been met with disappointment.
In 1999, former Gov. Paul Cellucci made a deal with the city to invest $200 million to renovate the Ferdinand and use it as a new home for the state Department of Public Health.
But in 2004, the Romney administration killed the plan, angering Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He accused the state of reneging on a deal seen as key to the area’s revitalization.
Dudley Square was once a vibrant commercial district. It was the second-largest in the Boston area, before suburban malls began cropping up in the region.
A Failed Highway Project
It’s also a community left scarred from the failed attempt, some two generations ago, to snake Interstate 95 through Boston.
Stanley remembers what it was like before all that. She still lives in the home that’s been in her family for generations.
“When I grew up, before they were doing the highway, all along Tremont [Street] and Columbus Avenue were all kinds of restaurants, stores,” she said.
But the highway project changed the landscape and Roxbury bore the brunt of it. Hundreds of businesses fell to the wrecking ball, wiping out thousands of jobs. Close to a thousand families lost their homes.
By the time a growing public outcry stopped the highway, some say it looked as though the area had been hit by a bomb.
“They tore down the whole corridor,” Stanley said. “You could go get a job anywhere down there — the pickle factory, the shoe factory. They tore all that down for a highway that didn’t happen.”
Residents Wary Of New Promises
In recent years, Roxbury has been recovering. The Menino adminstration is focusing its latest effort on the Ferdinand Building, billing it as the “centerpiece of a community.”
But failed attempts to fix Roxbury have made residents wary of new promises. Citizen-led groups have held regular meetings to get answers from the city and contractors.
“My concern is that all too often we have projects in Boston where it is such economic disparity when it comes to construction workers who are residents that live here,” said resident Amenyonah Bossman. “It’s not fair for us to walk through the neighborhood and not see our faces. It’s an injustice. So when you come to the neighborhood, what are you going to bring to the community?”
“As far as this project is concerned, it is monitored,” said Donovan Walker, a member of the Dudley Square Vision Task Force. He says they’re monitoring the project to make sure it meets the city’s hiring guidelines for Boston residents for the hundreds of construction jobs it will bring.
“We are committed to making sure that residents in this community get them jobs,” he said.
School Headquarters To Open In 2014
When the Ferdinand is finished, it will centralize the Boston Schools Department, housing workers from the current office downtown and from various BPS locations around the city.
“We don’t want Roxbury to be like a mini-Government Center,” said resident Dorothea Jones, who’s concerned about whether filling the Ferdinand with municipal offices is the best use.
“The building should be more than an office space between 9 and 3 or 9 and 4,” she said. “If they combine all of their sub-offices or substations, wherever they may be, if they’re there between 9 and 3 that still eliminates a lot of the possibilities for wealth generation in this area.”
City officials say it makes sense to use the Ferdinand as BPS headquarters.
“This building is in the center demographic of the Boston public school area,” said Maureen Anderson, a senior project manager for the Public Facilities Department. “Demographically most of the students who utilize Boston public schools live in close to this neighborhood.”
Many people in the neighborhood do hope the Ferdinand project will prompt more development in Dudley Square.
“We need amenities back,” Stanley said. “People want more little cafes, stores, you want to be able to go sit down at night and have something to eat. There’s no place in our neighborhood to do that. There’s no place.”
She added: “It’s my neighborhood and I know it can be what it was before.”
The Ferdinand Municipal Center is expected to open in the fall of 2014.