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The Plan To Develop A ‘Black Wall Street’ In Boston Faces Growing Pains

Walking the streets of Nubian Square, it's clear a transformation is happening.

Construction crews are busy building a new mixed-income development on Washington Street and the new campus for Franklin Cummings Tech on Harrison Avenue. These projects are part of an ongoing development wave in an area that some Black leaders have dubbed the next Black Wall Street, a growing technology and cultural hub in the Roxbury neighborhood.

Roxbury's Nubian Square, envisioned by some leaders as Boston's new "Black Wall Street," is preparing for a wave of development.

Roughly 2M SF of projects from prominent developers like HYM Investment GroupRelated Beal, Cruz Cos. and Richard Taylor have received city approval and are underway in the neighborhood. 

However, on those same streets, there are still physical and emotional remnants of the disinvestment the community has faced for decades. Signs from businesses that have shuttered still hang, and other storefronts close down midday, leaving the sidewalks empty in the afternoons except for those walking to catch a bus at Nubian Station.

This neighborhood in transition is facing growing pains. Community activists and real estate leaders have voiced concerns over retail businesses closing, and residents are worried that the new developments could push out longtime neighbors. But with hundreds of new housing units and job opportunities slated to come to the area, there is hesitant optimism throughout the community about the future of the city's Black cultural hub.

"There is definitely hope on the horizon because of projects that we're doing and other people are doing there, but if you go down Dudley after 6 o'clock, there's nobody," Cruz Cos. President John Cruz III said. 

His firm's 168-unit development at 135 Dudley St. hasn't broken ground yet, but Cruz said he hopes to begin the rental portion of the project soon. The building would include just over 50% affordability, with 60 rental units and 27 condo units income-restricted, something Cruz said he hopes limits the gentrification in the area.

"Their concern is the gentrification," Cruz said. "That's the biggest fear of everybody. … There's some resentment in the community now about who's benefiting from it."

The neighborhood's transformation can even be seen in its name. In 2019, the city changed it from Dudley Square to Nubian Square. And that same year, the city adopted a new planning guide as part of its push to revitalize the area.

But after being struck by the pandemic, the neighborhood's retail has struggled to stay afloat, and residents have been frustrated about the lack of new food offerings. 

"For literally 20 years we tried to bring a grocery store to Nubian Square, with lots of difficulty," said Rodney Singleton, a Roxbury resident and community activist. 

"We had Harvest Foods look at it and they said no," he added. "We had a Trader Joe's, they said no. All of these large supermarkets said no, and we had a lot of difficulty trying to find a store that we could install there and satisfy the idea that Nubian Square is kind of a food desert." 

At the beginning of the year, restaurant Soleil shuttered after almost six years in operation, partially due to the high prices of ingredients. Other stores like Dudley Café and Frugal Bookstore had to raise their prices coming out of the pandemic to keep up with the increasing costs associated with their business, GBH reported.

Southern restaurant Soleil closed in January, but the restaurant's sign is still up.

"I’m trying to hold fast to maintain a price point, but it becomes difficult to do so and run a profitable margin," Soleil co-founder Cheryl Straughter told GBH in 2021. "For a business like mine, how are you going to survive this winter?"

The neighborhood also lost three pharmacies in the last year, two Walgreens and a CVS. The closings were a hit to the community, and some residents have considered legal action against Walgreens.

"It's just not fair to us," Roxbury resident Jennifer Smith-Workman told GBH. "Especially to disabled. ... Did they ask any of the people in the neighborhood? No one came to me and asked me or my husband or anyone in my neighborhood if we needed this location. No one came, and it's a shame."

New developments are also seeing trouble bringing in retail offerings.

Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp.'s Bartlett Station, a multiphase, 323-unit residential development in the neighborhood that was approved in 2013, has a large retail space that could house a restaurant but hasn't secured a tenant yet.

Mayor Michelle Wu came to Nubian Square Monday for the ribbon-cutting of the Kenzi at Bartlett Station project.

"There is a lot of available commercial space in Boston, and we're competing," Nuestra Executive Director N. Paul TonThat said. "We are hoping very much to bring for the community a restaurant, but so far I have not yet found a partner who can pay for the large resizing for their build-out."

The developer also opened its newest development, Kenzi at Bartlett Station, on Monday. The project is a 50-unit, income-restricted supportive housing complex for older adults in the neighborhood. Mayor Michelle Wu attended the ribbon-cutting, saying in a press release the project "will allow for these older residents to contribute to the vibrancy and fabric of this neighborhood."

Other restaurants and retailers that have remained open close midday, leaving parts of the community quiet after 4 p.m. Many community members have pushed to bring in new retail options that will liven the neighborhood after work.

"What we've heard from the community is that right now a lot of storefronts in Nubian Square close down at 4 or 5 o'clock, and that not limiting the use of that space to something that kind of falls in that time frame and more after-work-type use would be ideal," SV + Partners principal John Sullivan said.

The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Nubian Square.

SV + Partners, in partnership with Caste Capital and Trax Development, is working on the 132-unit apartment building 10 Malcolm X Blvd., which will include ground-floor retail. The project includes 21 condo units and is still going through the Article 80 process.

Several other high-profile developments have moved forward in Nubian Square over the last several years.

The square's Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building was built in 2017, preserving the Ferdinand Furniture Building and creating a 215K SF facility home to the Boston Public Schools and the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts headquarters.

In 2019, the city's Public Improvement Commission unanimously voted to change the neighborhood's name from Dudley Square, named after the second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Thomas Dudley, to Nubian Square, named after the northeastern African region Nubia, to better reflect its residents.

The same year, the Boston Planning & Development Agency approved its PLAN: Nubian Square, which aims to redevelop the area thoughtfully, with Black developers taking the charge to bring in new mixed-income, transit-oriented housing and new job opportunities.

A rendering of Nubian Square Ascends

Since then, approvals have been given for a handful of projects, including HYM Investment Group's 7.7-acre Parcel P3 development across the street from the Boston Police Headquarters in October and Related Beal and Dream Development's 402-unit residential proposal for the Boston Water Sewer Commission parking lot site in April.

One of the most notable projects in the pipeline is Richard Taylor's Nubian Square Ascends, a 365K SF mixed-use project on city-owned lots at 2164 Washington St. The project won BPDA approval on Sept. 14 and includes housing for artists, 15 condos, a medical office and a life sciences training building.

The project secured a $3M pre-development loan from BlueHub Capital but hasn't broken ground yet. Taylor said he completed a letter of intent for the 100K SF life science building, and the team is moving to utility construction next.

The project would be one of the largest to come to the area in decades and would bring not just housing but also job opportunities the area hasn't seen before. Taylor said the development will host paid interns from Boston Public Schools and a math skills boot camp for adults 26 and older who are interested in entering the life sciences sector.

Several projects have also brought new homeownership opportunities to the community, which residents have pushed for to build generational wealth and reduce gentrification.

The original proposal for SV + Partners' 10 Malcolm X Blvd. didn't have a homeownership component.

"Some of the points folks were really pushing to get into the project were opportunities to create generational wealth for the community," SV + Partners principal Jacob Vance said. "It was really important to many folks in that community that they have the opportunity to buy into the project."

Caste Capital founder Patrick Kimble, who grew up in the area, said the development will help slowly transform the community for the better.

The site of the new 68K SF Franklin Cummings Tech campus on Harrison Avenue.

"A fair amount of development that's in the pipeline is indeed accretive for that neighborhood," Kimble said.

BlueHub Loan Fund President Karen Kelleher's company has funded some of the new development projects that are taking shape in the community, lending more than $91M to similar projects in Roxbury since 1989.

"Public leadership is critical to this work," Kelleher said. "Many of the deals we've talked about are deals that are happening on city-owned land, where the city has been very intentional in selecting local, community-based developers or teams that include community-based developers to reconstruct their own neighborhood."

In March, the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, a technical and trade school whose students are mostly people of color and first-generation college students, broke ground on its new 68K SF campus in Nubian Square.

The nation's largest Black-owned bank, OneUnited, also acquired the building at 54 John Eliot Square to move its 10K SF headquarters back into the community.

OneUnited officially announced the move last month to be closer to its customers, the Boston Business Journal reported. OneUnited President Teri Williams said the move would also be part of the community's revitalization.

"I have been feeling that urgency for a long time," Williams said. "Part of it is because of the transformation, but part of it is also to spark the transformation. I still feel like we're an afterthought."

She said the company has been trying to make the move happen for the last decade but recently found the opportunity to not only move but also own its new headquarters. She said the move couldn't have come at a better time.

"There is a focus on Black Wall Street and the importance of having Black businesses,” Williams said.

"Now, with the Bank Black and the Buy Black movements, Black businesses are a much more present thought, but we really still feel like we have a ways to go."