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Restaurant, shops anticipated for first floor of Ferdinand site

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

When Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced in March, 2011 that the city would redevelop the long-vacant Ferdinand’s Furniture site in Dudley Square, he described the plan as not only a way to consolidate the Boston Public Schools (BPS) department and move it closer to where the city’s school-aged children live, but also to help restore Dudley Square’s vibrancy as a business district.

At the groundbreaking ceremony last spring, Menino reiterated that hope.

“Our goal is simple: to bring more people and economic life to historic Dudley Square,” he said.

The new six-story building will bring an influx of some 500 new employees, adding foot traffic for local shops and food and service providers. If all goes well, when the building opens in early 2015, many of these workers will stop for morning coffee here, buy lunch there, pick up groceries or go out to dinner after work, drop off dry cleaning or do some shopping at lunch hour — giving a boost to existing and new area businesses.

Street-facing storefronts will fill the ground floor of the new building, which occupies the entire block bounded by Washington and Warren Streets and Dudley station. The hope is that these businesses will inject extra life into the area beyond workday hours. Adding evening activity, rather than having businesses go dark at 5 p.m., has long been desired by community members.

What sort of businesses will move into these storefronts is still undetermined. But with the building’s overall design plans solidified and construction underway, project planners are now ready to address the what, when and how of the retail.

On Jan. 31, a Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force meeting will address the building’s retail component. Consultant Chris Gordon, a Harvard Business School lecturer who has been an adviser to the city on the Dudley plan, will present information about the retail space, how it could be divided up and utilized, and what steps business owners should take if they are interested in leasing space. The meeting will be held at Central Boston Elder Services in Dudley Square from 6 to 8 p.m. and is open to the public.

The total amount of space available is about 18,000 square feet, according to Gordon, and could be subdivided in a number of ways, depending on what types of businesses want to locate there. The space will probably hold about four or five establishments, he estimated.

Last June, the Task Force and members of the public heard the results of the Dudley Retail and Consumer Survey administered in spring of 2012. The survey was commissioned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority to measure where people who live, work, or travel through Dudley Square tend to shop and dine, and what types of businesses they want to see in the area. The survey was also given to BPS employees.

Among the most desired businesses were a sit-down restaurant, live music lounge and bakery. Other top choices included clothing outlet store, sandwich shop, burrito cafe, sports bar, ice cream/yogurt shop and a coffee shop with seating, evening hours and Internet access.

In public meetings over the past 16 months, area residents have repeatedly expressed hope for a full-service, sit-down restaurant. With that in mind, city representatives have said that one of the more prominent spaces — where the “nose” of the former Ferdinand building juts into the intersection of Warren and Washington Streets — will be built with the right venting and plumbing to potentially hold a restaurant.

Small start-up entrepreneurs might like to be in the heart of Dudley Square, but they have to face the reality that rents could be steep, on top of the difficulty getting financing for untested ventures. Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Main Streets, said average rent for retail space in the area is currently $24 per square foot. That means about $2,000 per month for a 1,000-square-foot store.

Base rent for the Ferdinand retail space has not been finalized, but will depend on market conditions at the time, Gordon said.

Stanley and others have suggested that the city should try to subsidize or support local businesses in the new building, but so far, there has been no word on any subsidy plans.

“I think we all like the idea of seeing local businesses,” Gordon said. “On the other hand, we can’t single out one business and say you’re going to be subsidized here.”

Frugal Bookstore owner Leonard Egerton would like to move his store, specializing in books by African American and Latin American authors, to the new building. He’s been attending the public meetings regularly and waiting to hear more about retail opportunities. In his store’s current Mall of Roxbury location, rent is $12 per square foot, he said — half of the going rate in Dudley Square. Relocating would likely mean higher rent for a smaller space, but Egerton feels being in a revitalized Dudley Square could be worth it.

“The market rate doesn’t scare me,” he said. “Moving to Dudley would enhance the growth of the business. More people would see it, and there’d be more foot traffic.”

For him, the rewards would be symbolic, too.

“I’m 48 years old, and I’ve never seen a business in operation in that location,” he said. “Having grown up here, riding the elevated train around that building, seeing it boarded up — to get into that building would be a tremendous success for me.”

Bing Broderick, business and marketing manager at the Haley House Bakery and Cafe, shares the hope that the new building will bring independent businesses that can’t be found in malls. He mentioned the recent success of the “pop-up” art and craft space that operated during the holiday season in a vacant Dudley Square storefront during.

“The pop-up shop was a wonderful opportunity for local crafters to sell their wares. I think there’s a demand for that,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get people if we offer the same things they can find everywhere else.”

He also imagines the new building as a site for telling the story of the community, with features such as a community bulletin board and exhibits of “old Dudley” history and artifacts.

“I see it as an opportunity to create a hub where there’s been a hole for a long time,” he said.

As for a retail timetable, Gordon said the city plans to issue a request for proposal (RFP) this summer, put the word out to brokers and take proposals in early fall. Retail tenants would build out their spaces in fall of 2014, in preparation for the building’s expected opening in the beginning of 2015. He encouraged interested people to attend the Jan. 31 meeting to learn more.

“We just think it’s [a] great space, and people need to hear about it,” he said. “The retail survey showed there’s an untapped need in retail. If people don’t know about it, that would be too bad.”

For more information about the Dudley municipal building project, including meeting notes, construction job information and a webcam, see www.dudleyvision.org.

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