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City seizes buildings to expand Ferdinand project

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
City seizes buildings to expand Ferdinand project
Action will displace Dudley businesses (Photo: Sandra Larson)

The City of Boston is moving to acquire the two remaining buildings adjacent to the old Ferdinand’s Furniture building to make more room for the planned $15 million Dudley Square Municipal Office Facility project, set to break ground in spring 2012.

City officials announced Nov. 30 that the privately-owned Curtis Block and Waterman and Sons buildings at 2304 and 2326 Washington St. will be acquired through a negotiated purchase or using the city’s power of eminent domain. The acquisition means the new facility, which will contain the Boston Public Schools (BPS) administrative offices, can extend to all corners of the triangular block.

 Kairos Shen, chief planner for the City of Boston and director of planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), said that controlling the whole block will allow a better connection between the new building and Dudley Station, more street-facing retail space and a way out of the logistical troubles of constructing around the two buildings.

“As the design progressed, it became clear there were some problems having these buildings under separate ownership,” Shen told the Banner. “Because of the windows in these buildings, we would have had to have a buffer zone [between them and the new construction],” he said. This constrained the new building’s footprint, reducing the available space for ground-floor stores and restaurants.

With the full block, retail space in the new facility can be increased to 15,000 square feet, he said. Design options presented two weeks ago to the Dudley Vision Task Force had included only about 10,000 square feet, causing some concern among Task Force members and local advocates who believe new retail/restaurant opportunities are crucial for a vibrant Dudley Square.

Under eminent domain, the government can acquire property from private owners without their consent for a fair market price. A document provided by the BRA shows the assessed value of the two buildings together as $1.6 million.

While the action adds retail to the new facility, it also displaces existing businesses, among them Manhattan Square dress shop, Simon’s Fish Market, Metro PCS, Performers Act II beauty salon and a veteran’s services office operated by Pine Street Inn.

The businesses have 120 days after the acquisition to leave, and the city will pay their relocation and reestablishment expenses. Shen said the first goal would be to relocate the businesses within Dudley Square, and there is a possibility they could come back into the new building when construction is completed. The facility is slated to open in mid-2014.

The owners of the two buildings could not be reached for comment, but some of the tenants are not happy about being forced to move.

“I’m very upset,” said Kay Kang, owner of Simon’s Fish Market, a fresh fish and takeout shop that opened in the Curtis Block building just two months ago. A “Grand Opening” sign still hangs on the storefront.

On Friday at noon, customers jammed the small shop’s fried fish takeout counter. Late in the afternoon the next day, a dozen or so people were browsing the fresh fish selection.

“I want to stay in Dudley. This area needs a fish market,” Kang said. Prior to the recent move, she had operated the fish market for six years a few blocks down the street. The business has two employees in addition to Kang’s family members, she said.

Kang understands that the city plans to pay relocation expenses, but that’s been little comfort in the days since she got the news. “In the middle of the night, I wake up and can’t even sleep,” she said.

She also questions the need to take the buildings.

 “They have a huge spot there,” she said, gesturing in the direction of the Ferdinand building and the wide-open vacant lot around it. “I don’t know why they want this space, too.”

Next door, at Manhattan Square Fashion, owner Cheunok Butler is worried, too. She has operated her special-occasion dress shop in this space for 20 years.

Surrounded by racks of shiny evening gowns, prom dresses and children’s christening and first communion garments, she pondered the store’s future, and her own, with a sober look. “I never thought about moving,” she said. “If I don’t have this business, I don’t know what else I would do.”

BRA representatives came to the shop to tell her about the plan, but Butler sounds unsure about what will happen, and when, and what kind of help she’ll get.

“They said they can help me move … I don’t know,” she trailed off.

On the other hand, local residents and Dudley area activists who have waited decades for action on the Ferdinand site generally reacted positively.

“I think it will be good for the [new] building,” said Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets and a member of the Dudley Vision Task Force. Nobody in her groups seems to have a problem with the plan, she said. She acknowledged the action puts existing businesses in a tough situation, though.

“The overall end result is a good one,” she said. “[But] what’s good for the businesses there may be a different story, and the city needs to help them.”

Kai Grant, a Roxbury resident who has been following the Ferdinand redevelopment plans and pushing for increased retail space, voiced support for the city’s plan.

“I think it’s a great turn of events,” said Grant, who is a member of the Dudley Square Main Streets board. Regarding the displaced businesses, she predicted they will successfully relocate with the help of the city and Dudley Square Main Streets, and perhaps even reinvent themselves and gain more clients in the process.

Looking at the big picture, Grant envisions not only restaurants and retail stores invigorating Dudley Square, but a new “education innovation district” spurred by the influx of BPS administration offices and the related businesses and research centers that could open nearby.

“I really believe the mayor has the best intentions,” she continued. “Here is a wonderful opportunity to create another district, before he leaves his term. We want our children’s children to see this as an economically thriving district, where they can be employed and do something meaningful. Shame on us if we don’t dig deeper into this opportunity.”