Roxbury Committee Taps Black Developers For Nubian Square Projects
Two Black developers have been tapped to turn two underutilized pieces of land in Roxbury into new projects that would bring cultural and office uses to the historically Black neighborhood.
The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee voted Monday evening to recommend developer Jonathan Smalls build an 11K SF dance studio and developer Richard Taylor build a nearly 200K SF building with artist live-work space, a food hall and offices to Nubian Square, formerly known as Dudley Square.
In a 7-2 decision, board members voted for Art @ The Nawn Factory despite their own questions about Smalls’ lack of experience over a proposal by Historic Boston Inc. to house The Wellness Center community space on the site at 2080 Washington St.
Smalls, a U.S. Department of Commerce software developer with two decades of experience in performing arts, faced scrutiny over what the committee called an “unrealistically low” development budget of a $5M Small Business Administration loan and a letter of interest from a lender, Bluehub Capital. Smalls' lack of development experience raised concerns among the committee, but the body ultimately decided to recommend his proposal.
“I feel the city needs to do better with giving people a chance,” committee member Nefertiti Lawrence said in Monday’s Zoom meeting. “His track record is not nearly as extensive as Historic Boston. However, we need to do better with supporting and allowing Black and Brown developers in the city to do development.”
Smalls didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The issue of track record reflects industrywide pressure on the private and public sectors to back projects led by minority developers to address racial equality in commercial real estate.
Committee co-Chair Norman Stembridge agreed there is a historical lack of opportunities for Black developers in Boston, who face an uneven playing field in obtaining capital.
“Boston is a small town with very big city ways,” Stembridge said. “There are many people who know many people in this area. And that tends to lead towards a narrowing of selection in terms of Black developers or possible Black developers.”
Stembridge said both projects are important for the formerly bustling business district, which was decimated by disinvestment after years of redlining, White flight to the suburbs and the removal of the MBTA’s Orange Line. The vacant Nawn Factory that Smalls hopes to redevelop is an “eyesore” in the square, Stembridge said.
The committee unanimously voted Monday on Taylor's Nubian Square Ascends proposal, which includes a 48K SF marketplace for artisans, a food hall and 135K SF of office space. The plan by developer Taylor and Black Market owners Kai and Christopher Grant faces a vote before the Boston Planning and Development Agency on Dec. 17.
Access to capital also looms large for the Blair Lot project. In its presentation Monday, the committee expressed some concern over Nubian Square Ascends' ability to secure an office anchor to pre-lease 60% or more of the building, which the developers would need to obtain construction financing.
The projects are the latest to move forward under the city's master plan for the neighborhood, which encompasses 10 parcels and was originally written in 2004, when the area was known as Dudley Square.
The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee was formed to ensure wealth generation originated from within the community, committee member Dorothea Jones said.
While identity politics played a role in the process, Roxbury Cultural District President Daniel Callahan said, the proposals were selected for their promises to the community.
“Roxbury is still grappling with this PR campaign against it where everyone thinks Roxbury is the dangerous part of Boston, there’s nothing going on there,” Callahan said. “That’s not the case. That hasn’t been the case for years. We feel that Roxbury could really be the arts and cultural hub of the entire city of Boston.”