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Boston businesses competing for Ferdinand’s space

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Boston businesses competing for Ferdinand’s space
Coffee shops, restaurants, an optometrist and an ice cream shop are among the business plans vying for one of the six storefront spaces in the new Ferdinand’s building.

A recent city-sponsored open house at the Dudley branch library offered businesses a chance to talk informally with the public about their proposals for ground-floor spaces in the new Dudley Square municipal center. The new six-story building, set to open in early 2015 on the old Ferdinand’s site, will house the Boston Public Schools administration, bringing some 500 employees as well as day and evening sidewalk-level business activity to the area.

Six storefront spaces have attracted proposals for eateries ranging from burger joints to Italian restaurants to a Vietnamese-style sandwiches deli, as well as coffee shops, a fashion boutique, a beauty school and an eye- care shop.

At the Thursday afternoon event, proposers stood behind tables with brochures and business cards, ready to make their pitch to anyone passing by.

Mo Farah and Lebeza Alemu, owners of the nearby Merkato Ethiopian market, are eager to open Etno Cafe, a coffee shop that would feature artisan coffees from beans grown on their ancestral family farm in Ethiopia, as well as pastries and possibly sandwiches. They envision the cafe opening as early as the first buses come through Dudley Station and closing at 11 p.m.

“There hasn’t been a place in Dudley where you can walk out of your apartment and have a place to think,” said Farah.

Optometrist Lesa Dennis-Mahamed has worked in other people’s businesses for 20 years, and now she wants to branch out on her own with Gallery Eye Care. She anticipates hiring optometrists, technicians, receptionists and an office manager, and offering “cutting edge” frames. Her working tagline is “a total visual experience,” reflecting her plan to also feature works by local artists in her shop. Hers would be the only free-standing optical shop in Roxbury, Dennis-Mahamed said.

Danny Hardaway aims to open a second location of his women’s fashion boutique, Final Touch With Class, which offers old-fashioned one-on-one customer service and handpicked designer styles, he said, with prices starting at about $50.

The store originally opened in Mattapan in 2005, and later moved to Brockton. His store would be open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., six days a week with shorter hours on Sunday.

“Ladies don’t want to see three or four others with the same dress at an event,” Hardaway said. “People won’t have to go to Newbury Street to get something special.”

Most of the businesses in attendance promised to be open into the evening, one of the desires expressed by community members repeatedly in public meetings and in a retail survey conducted in 2012, and wanted to share how they would benefit the community — with healthy food options, community gathering space or support for local artists and youth.

Humayun Morshed, owner of several convenience stores in Roxbury and Dorchester, wants to open Frank’s Ice Cream & Express Mart to sell ice cream, convenience items and premade sandwiches in a shop with entrances facing Dudley Station and the building’s interior lobby. The shop’s name honors Frank Ferdinand, the original furniture merchant of the iconic 19th century building. The Ferdinand building’s facade has been preserved alongside the modern brick and glass expansion filling out the new municipal center.

“We have experience. We know the neighborhood. We know how to start a business,” said Morshed. Besides hiring several employees early on, he envisions summer job opportunities for area teens.

Tasty Burger proposer Dave DuBois started the Franklin Cafe in the South End in 1996, and has since opened Citizen Public House and Tasty Burger restaurants. He is aiming for one of the medium-size spaces that he said would seat 60 to 80 people. He described his burger joint and bar as “affordable, with healthy options, and a neighborhood place to hang out.” Prices for meat and vegetarian burger options will range from $4.25 to $5.75, he said.

The largest available space, in the iconic “point” of the old Ferdinand Building, is expected to hold a full-service restaurant with seating for upwards of 200 diners. Vying for all or part of this 7,800-square-foot “anchor” space are three proposers: Salvatore’s Italian restaurant, Clover Fast Food, and the Wilcox Hospitality group, owners of Parish Cafe and Estelle’s Southern Cuisine.

Other proposals include Bon Me, Touch of Perfection beauty school, a pizza shop operated by Haley House, a multicultural bookstore, and Starbucks, Subway and Burger King franchises, as well as the nonprofit Discover Roxbury, which wants to consolidate its office and programming operations and provide shared event and work space.

The proposals are now under review by a selection committee that will weigh such factors in the city’s request for proposal as prior business experience, capacity to fund the start-up and ongoing business cost, contribution to a desired mix of businesses for the area and willingness to be good citizens of the community. The request for proposal, issued last December, stated that “the City and local community are particularly interested in a vibrant retail mix that will enliven the district day and night, reinforce the well-being of the community, and strengthen the social fabric of the Dudley Square area.”

There is no plan for a formal public input process, said Dana Whiteside, deputy director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Community Economic Development department, but the selection committee includes Dudley area stakeholders as well as city officials, he said.

The selection committee members are Joe Mulligan, deputy director of the city’s Property and Construction Management department (the builder of the municipal center); James Kennedy, of the city’s Office of Budget Management; Susan McCann of Boston Public Schools, the primary tenant of the building; Rafael Carbonell, deputy director of the Office of Business Development in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development); Charlotte Nelson, a member of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee and the Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force; Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Main Streets and DVATF member; and Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston. 

No specific date has been set for a decision on the winning proposals, but it will have to be soon, as the selected tenants will need to complete lease negotiations and start on their design, build-out and permitting activities well in advance of the building’s opening in early 2015.