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Slow going on largest Rox. parcel

Eleven years after original P3 designation, land remains bare

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Slow going on largest Rox. parcel
After 11 years of failed development schemes, Parcel P3 remains vacant.

When Elma Lewis Partners, LLC was granted development rights to Parcel P-3 in 2007, their plans for a new space for the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists along with commercial and residential space generated enthusiasm in the Roxbury community.

The eight-acre parcel on Tremont Street in Lower Roxbury had been cleared of its housing stock on one end during the BRA’s urban renewal program in the 1960s and on the other during the state’s failed plan to extend Interstate 95 through Roxbury and the South End.

A decade after the development plans were announced, however, the parcel remains covered in weeds, trees and rubbish.

Elma Lewis Partners and the development team that will jointly own the project, Feldco Development, now say they are just months away from beginning site preparation work, but Boston Planning and Development Agency has yet to give its final approval for the project.

“We’re just going through the last few hurdles,” said Feldco Vice President for the Greater Boston region Jeffrey Feldman.

By spring of next year, the project leaders expect to begin construction of the buildings on the site.

The seemingly glacial pace of development on Parcel P-3 stands in stark contrast to other formerly undeveloped sections of the Boston area such as the Seaport District, where a new neighborhood has sprung up from the parking lots and industrial buildings, and Assembly Row in Charlestown and Somerville, where condos, offices and shops now occupy a formerly vacant wasteland.

The city building renaissance, which most recently brought a cinema complex, retail, parking and condos to the South Bay area, has eluded Parcel P-3.

With a Feb. 28 deadline looming, the developers have requested a three-month extension for the project.

Feldman says the team has lined up commitments from tenants for 75 percent of the retail spaces, but acknowledged that many of the prospective tenants had letters of intent, not signed leases.

“In terms of pre-leasing retail, we’re way ahead of the curve,” he said.

But BPDA Deputy Director for Community Economic Development Dana Whiteside said the team will need to show signed leases in order to begin work.

“The preference is to move beyond letters of intent,” he said. “Letters of intent don’t speak to actual agreements.”

After 11 years of extensions, some in the community are questioning whether the project, dubbed Tremont Crossing, will ever break ground.

“We’re getting pretty close to the last extension of the last extension,” said Bruce Bickerstaff, a former member of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee. “They haven’t moved a spade of dirt.”

Starts and stops

Elma Lewis Partners, LLC beat out two other development teams in 2007 to secure designation to develop P-3. The LLC includes members of the leadership of the Museum of National Center for Afro-American Artists, founded by the late Elma Lewis. Their aim has been to bring commercial development to the long-vacant parcel that would subsidize the construction and operation of a new museum and cultural center.

The project ran into stiff headwinds with the financial collapse of 2008. While that project stalled, one component, the Whittier Street Health Center, went forward on its own with the development of a new, state-of-the art facility, which was completed in 2012 and remains separate from the Elma Lewis/Feldco development project.

Meanwhile, Elma Lewis Partners struggled in the recession-era economy. Then-Mayor Thomas Menino stripped the LLC of their designation in 2009, but after considerable community pressure, re-designated them on the project. Feldco came on as a member of the partnership in 2010.

Then, according to Elma Lewis Partners principal Barry Gaither, director and curator of the NCAAA, the project hit a series of setbacks. First, as part of an effort to keep Partners Healthcare in the city, Menino pushed the health care giant to build its new headquarters on the P-3 site as part of the Elma Lewis Partners/Feldco project.

Although Partners was to be the lead tenant in the deal, the Elma Lewis Partners/Feldco team failed to close the deal. Partners broke ground on an 825,000-square foot headquarters in the Assembly Row development in Somerville in 2014. The $465 million building opened in 2016.

In 2014, the BRA granted the Elma Lewis/Feldco team an extension of their designation to develop P-3.

The administration of former Gov. Deval Patrick handed the team another potential anchor for the site: the state Department of Transportation, which the administration sought to house in a new headquarters. That deal, too, slipped away from the developers during what Gaither said was a year of negotiations. In 2015 the Patrick administration exited and the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker was ushered in.

“All the people who were working on this in the previous administration were leaving,” said Jeffrey Feldman.

Over the past two years the project has undergone further reconfigurations. The team in 2015 floated a proposal for an 800-bed student housing complex on the parcel, sparking fierce opposition from community members, local elected officials and members of the Roxbury Strategic Masterplan Oversight Committee, which is overseeing the community review process for Parcel P3. The Elma Lewis/Feldco team dropped the plan after several months.

The plan

The current proposal for the site includes nearly 1.2 million square feet of space, half of which will be occupied by rental housing. Retail will take up nearly a third of the development, with office space taking up most of the rest. The museum, which will occupy the third floor of a building facing Tremont Street, will occupy 31,000 square feet — or 2.5 percent of the development.

Feldco President Barry Feldman said Elma Lewis Partners will have an approximately 50 percent share in the ownership of the development, though that won’t be determined until the funding is in place.

The development team lists the nearly $14 million museum construction as a community benefit. A portion of the proceeds from leases in the development will be dedicated to the museum’s operating budget.

“It’s earned income based on long-term leases,” Gaither said. “This is a guarantee that assures the living legacy of Elma Lewis.”

Whether or not the current project moves forward, BPDA Deputy Director Dana Whiteside said Mayor Martin Walsh is committed to seeing the parcel developed.

“We want to move forward with the right project,” he said. “We want to work with the developers and the community to make sure that this will be beneficial to everybody.”

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