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Mayor’s Ferdinand plan stirs hope for Dudley revitalization

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Mayor Thomas Menino has announced major plans for long-awaited redevelopment of the old Ferdinand Building in the heart of Dudley Square.

“In these unsettled times, we don’t shy away from our promises,” Menino said in his annual speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau on March 3. He insisted the project is “too important … too urgent,” not to do. “We will never know how great Boston can be until Dudley Square is great once again,” he said, according to a prepared text of the speech.

The ornate five-story building at the Y-intersection of Washington and Warren Streets once housed the popular furniture retailer Ferdinand’s Blue Store. Now vacant for three decades, it’s a sad symbol of non-action, dominating the view in Dudley Square with its blue boarded-up windows and doors.

Hopes for the Ferdinand site have risen and fallen over the years. In 2004, Gov. Mitt Romney dropped a state plan to move the Department of Public Health to the building. Mayor Menino promised at that time, and again in 2008, to begin restoration work. The city went as far as holding a competition for design proposals after taking ownership of the Ferdinand property in 2006, but plans have never gotten off the ground.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for it to actually happen,” said Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets. “A lot of businesses moved here because they thought something was going to get done with it.”

The city’s plan includes developing the Ferdinand site with $115 million in borrowed funds, relocating the headquarters of Boston Public Schools (BPS) there, and making other relocations with the aim of reducing the number of city administrative buildings from nine buildings to four, cutting operating costs.

The city will partner with a private developer, not yet selected, who will manage ground-floor retail space in the Ferdinand development. Construction is expected to begin in 12 months and the project will provide 350 construction jobs, according to a fact sheet from the mayor’s office.

An influx of 400 BPS employees into the area will be good for retailers, said Stanley, though she noted that 2,500 to 3,000 people already work in Dudley Square now.

The arrival of municipal offices does not resolve another problem she sees in the Square — that most businesses are closed after 5 p.m. The inclusion of new retail space in the refurbished building is essential, she said, potentially bringing new later-hours businesses in such as restaurants and cafes.

“It’ll be a good shot in the arm for Washington Street,” she said.

Though Stanley is optimistic about the plan, she wants to keep an eye on the process to make sure the building’s unique features are not lost.

“The Ferdinand is the center of Dudley Square. It’s what people identify with Dudley Square, second only to Dudley Station,” she said. “We want that building retained. We don’t want it replaced with some modern behemoth.”

Boston City Councilor-At-Large Felix G. Arroyo is excited about the new plan, and expressed confidence that it will go forward this time.

“Where and when the Mayor made the statement is important,” he said. “It’s one of his three big speeches per year [along with the State of the City address and a speech to the Chamber of Commerce]. The fact he made Dudley the focus of such an important speech was exciting to me.”

Arroyo also said he wants to ensure that the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, which requires employment of city residents, minorities and women on city construction projects, is fully enforced.

“We’re going to work really hard with the city to make sure they meet or exceed the job ordinance on every check,” he said. “That doesn’t happen by accident — it happens when people stay on it, check with the contractors.”

Rodney Singleton, a professional engineer and Roxbury community activist who serves on several area development committees, is also concerned about compliance with the minority hiring rules.

“I can’t tell you how many people say they’re minority contractors, and have the MBE [Minority Business Enterprise] certification, but can’t report any minorities actually on the site,” he said. “To be fair, in their defense they say they can’t find minorities and women for the jobs. So how do we deal with that? What I want to hear as a citizen advocate is, what are you doing to address that?”

But overall, Singleton and others in the community are pleased with the recently announced plan.

“It’s good news,” Singleton said. “I support it. I think a lot of people think it’s long overdue. I don’t know a soul who thinks the Ferdinand Building should not be developed.”

The only reservation he suggests people might have is that the area needs business, not municipal offices. But he believes that the retail space makes the plan a good compromise, he said.

Kairos Shen, chief planner for the City of Boston and director of planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), explained why this ambitious plan is being launched now.

“There is significance and need for the city to develop in Dudley Square. In the past two years, as the mayor said, the Dudley area has suffered more from the poor economy than other areas.  In spite of the infusion of federal and state monies into the area, trying to deal with the recession, clearly there’s more to be done in this area.”

He cited the mayor’s plan to borrow $115 million as an indication the plan is real and can be achieved. Further, this particular moment in the economy is a good one for launching the project.

“There is time for us to take advantage of a soft construction market and get more ‘bang out of the buck’ by starting this year, before the real estate market goes up,” he said.

The public-private partnership strategy the city has in mind is very unusual, Shen said, and has not been used for city buildings in Boston before. The city will be borrowing money to fund a public project, he explained, but municipal buildings typically do not have retail space built in, a key piece of the Ferdinand plan.

“In the planning process we agreed that this development project has to make Dudley Square more active, more vibrant. Retail is a critical component.” So the role of the private developer will be to manage the retail space as well as to advise on design and construction, he said.

The old Ferdinand building’s historical features will be preserved, Shen said, at least on the exterior, even though the project may cost more because of that goal. He acknowledged that the building has “seen better days” and needs a lot of work.

“We are assuming there will be some premium in keeping the [building’s] character,” he said. “But there is intrinsic value in that character, and everyone involved believes this is a good thing.”