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Passions flare at Dudley Vision meeting

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Passions flare at Dudley Vision meeting
Carleton Jones, executive director of capital and facilities management for the Boston Public Schools, speaks to the Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force and community members on July 26 about use of space in the new School Department headquarters now under construction in Dudley Square. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

BPS spokesperson says “no” to Skylab

A Boston Public Schools (BPS) representative told the Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force last Thursday that a proposed Skylab in the new BPS headquarters under construction in Dudley Square likely won’t materialize.

The July 26 task force meeting, attended by about 30 community members, was billed as a project overview and update on plans for the new municipal building, expected to open in 2014. But it turned into an impassioned discussion of what the Roxbury community needs and the high hopes harbored by some for the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity the $115 million project presents.

At issue was whether non-BPS entities such as local nonprofit groups could bid for extended occupancy of a sixth-floor space in the new building.

The 1,900-square-foot area on the sixth floor, labeled as “shared” or “public” in recent design documents, will open onto a roof garden atop the old Ferdinand’s Furniture building. The roof offers a rare bird’s-eye view of Roxbury and the downtown Boston skyline.

At a June task force meeting, community members Kai Grant and Bridgette Wallace had outlined their vision for that space: a technology training and education center they call “Dudley Vision Skylab.” After their presentation, questions arose about whether any single entity would be allowed to lease the space. If long-term occupancy is to be allowed, some argued, an open bidding process should be initiated so that other interested groups could present their proposals.

Carleton Jones, executive director of capital and facilities management for BPS, had a clear answer on Thursday.

“The space will be treated no differently than at the other [BPS] facilities,” Jones announced. As with any school auditorium or gymnasium or cafeteria, there is a procedure involving permits, he said, and usually fees for after-hours use, and that’s how people or groups would gain access to public spaces in the new BPS headquarters.

No group will be allowed to secure a space for longer than the duration of a single meeting or event.

Jones also said it was not known what type of public access will be possible for the roof deck, as the sixth floor will hold BPS staff workspaces and offices as well. “It’s conceivable there will be enough separation to allow access,” he said, and “perhaps” it would be available after hours for occasional events.

As it became clear the answer was a flat “no” for Skylab or any other entity wanting to lease this particular space, community members and some task force members voiced surprise and disappointment.

“Based on the past few months of meetings, a lot of us felt there was an opportunity here,” said task force member Charlotte Nelson after Jones’s brief presentation. “A destination, a hub of activity that the community could enjoy. Now it sounds like that might not be possible.”

Although the new building’s ground-floor retail spaces should add economic activity to Dudley Square, community members are clearly yearning for non-commercial benefits, too.

“I thought you would come back with a process that would enable things to happen in this space, that would allow community groups to use the space—and not just for single events,” said Albert Willis, a technology consultant and Dorchester resident who has been following the evolution of the Skylab idea. “The stuff we need to do to move this community forward cannot be done on an event basis.

“We wanted to get in [early] to get the most community benefit out of this building,” Willis continued. “It’s surprising, to say the least, to hear it will be just like any other space—‘fill out a form online and pay the fee.’”

Task force member Sarah-Ann Shaw summed up general sentiments this way: “The whole Ferdinand project is a symbol for the community. We’ve been promised many things. This building, once it’s finished, should reflect a promise made and a promise kept to this community.”

Bridgette Wallace argued for the need to have community space programmed thoughtfully. She pointed out that several community rooms exist in the Dudley area, but most are used only for occasional meetings. “If a space is not programmed with a purpose, then it’s not going to serve the community,” she said, drawing applause.

The plans Wallace and Grant presented in June included conference space, classrooms and a fabrication lab where young people and adults could experiment with technology.

“What we propose is a multi-purpose space,” Wallace reiterated at last week’s meeting. “It would benefit a wide range of people. It would help them move from being consumers — which is what the retail space will do — to being innovators and operators. I can’t believe that the School Department is saying we don’t want this for our community. That is wrong.”

This drew more applause, during which Wallace added, “It’s not going to end here tonight.”

Throughout the meeting, Jones emphasized that Skylab could very well be implemented, but not in the space the proponents dream of.

“We recognize [Skylab] as a vision,” he said, “It can still happen — just not in this sixth floor space. It’s a wonderful idea, but not every idea fits in every space.”

Task force co-chair Catherine Hardaway urged people to keep open minds about possible locations.

“To me, the vision is more important,” she said. “I think the [Skylab] proposal is a great idea, but I want us to not get stuck on the physical space. We have to be open to different directions.”

Task force members Fred Fairfield and Joyce Stanley suggested that Madison Park High School might be a location for Skylab, after BPS relocates some departments from the Madison Park building to the new Dudley Square building.

But Grant took exception to these ideas, arguing that the upper floor and Ferdinand roof are integral to the Skylab plan.

“The vision and the view is what we’ve always talked about,” she said, “and how inspirational it would be for our kids and adults to be able to look inside their community, outside it, and beyond.”

Jumaada Smith, a task force member, expressed appreciation for the work Grant and Wallace have put into their plan, and for their vision.

“We are onto something with what they are doing, and it belongs right here,” she said.

Jones fielded some questions from teen attendees about services and activities for young people in the new building. One “takeaway” from this evening, Jones said, was to communicate to the BPS administration that the new building should be accessible to and utilized by students.

District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson arrived during the question-and-answer period, and weighed in after listening to the discussion. “I think the issue of innovation and teaching young people entrepreneurship is something that has to be embraced by BPS, and has to be considered seriously,” he said.

After the meeting, Jackson added, “The most important thing is that the community voice is listened to. This would be an important part of empowering young people.” He said he will make sure the Skylab idea is given a “fair and thoughtful vetting.”

Bruce Bickerstaff, community member and Roxbury Trust Fund board chair, injected a note of both urgency and hope near the meeting’s end.

“I would implore everyone who supports Skylab to contact [BPS Superintendent] Carol Johnson,” Bickerstaff said. “As a community, we should bring this idea to the person who will ultimately make the decision. What irks me is when you say so absolutely ‘it can’t be done.’ We need to continue to promote this idea. We also need to be open to how we can work together to make it happen in the place we all believe it should happen. It can be worked out.”

The next Dudley Task Force meeting is scheduled for Sept. 27. For information and updates on the construction project, see www.dudleyvision.org.