The Alexandra Hotel’s Redevelopment Ignites Roxbury Displacement Concerns
A Roxbury eyesore — or South End, depending on who you ask — is poised for redevelopment after decades of abandonment, fires and a brief flirtation with Scientology.
But neighborhood sparring is holding up progress.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency doesn't have records of when the building was last fully occupied. Former Boston City Council President Larry DiCara told Bisnow he has no recollection of it being occupied during his City Hall years, which began in 1972. South End Forum Chair Steve Fox said it could have last been commercially viable as far back as the 1940s.
The hotel, which opened in 1875, eventually checked out after the building fell on hard times once the old elevated Orange Line was built down Washington and a series of fires made the upper floors uninhabitable.
After decades of neglect, and at a time when Boston property values are skyrocketing and neighbors and developers want to see something done at the property, it might be easy to assume redevelopment would move quickly. It hasn't.
“We’ve had so many false starts. I can’t begin to tell you the number of pie-in-the-sky proposals,” Fox said. “It has been a daunting task to pull something together that would work in that space.”
A Church of Scientology headquarters, affordable housing, a homeless shelter, a 30-story apartment tower and luxury condos have all been pitched for the Alexandra Hotel site over the last 30 years. But hurdles to financing and neighbors' height concerns limit what can be done.
DiCara, who is now a consultant and lobbyist on numerous Boston developments, estimates rehabilitation costs to turn the Alexandra into affordable housing could run as much as $1K/SF.
“Suddenly, that’s no longer affordable housing,” he said. “It becomes a very expensive deal.”
DiCara said the cost of a redevelopment would necessitate added height and expansion to make redevelopment pencil out. The Church of Scientology, which bought the Alexandra in 2008, put the property up for sale in 2014 after failing to secure the $17M needed for renovation.
CVS Pharmacy heir Eric Hoagland was briefly tied to the project, but sources told Bisnow neighborhood groups balked when he wanted to add a nearly 30-story addition to the original structure.
Developers JB Ventures and TCR Development bought the property from the Church of Scientology July 1 in an $11M deal. The joint venture is pitching a 13-story boutique hotel at the property. Construction would take between 18 and 24 months. But a deed transfer doesn’t mean a groundbreaking is around the corner.
During the approvals process for the project earlier this year, city planners realized the hotel, pitched as a South End redevelopment, was in Roxbury but fell under the purview of the South End Landmarks Commission. The BPDA still approved the project in March, but it must clear a zoning hearing and the Landmarks Commission before shovels can hit the ground.
Neighbors on both sides of Massachusetts Avenue, the historic border between the South End and Roxbury, say the project is a conduit for how that stretch of Boston evolves over the next decades.
Public meetings earlier this year grew heated as Roxbury residents said the project represented South End gentrification encroaching on Boston’s historically African American neighborhood. Multiple neighborhood groups claimed at a March hearing, which Bisnow attended, that they had been left out of the planning process.
Bisnow reached out on multiple occasions to several Roxbury neighborhood groups, like the Roxbury Neighborhood Council, United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury and Boston City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district includes the Alexandra. None responded in time for publication.
Washington Gateway Main Street, a South End neighborhood group, has a four-corners vitality initiative at the intersection, according to a letter filed with the BPDA. The program has fostered the opening of a 7-Eleven convenience store and upstairs offices, a renovated Bank of America storefront as well as the high-end French bistro Bar Lyon that opened last year.
The Alexandra is the remaining item (and corner) on the group’s checklist.
CBT principal David Nagahiro, an architect behind the hotel proposal, said the two neighborhoods have more shared values at the project than what has been reported.
“Issues like traffic impact, jobs for local communities and social mitigation … these are things common to both, but everyone ultimately want their voices heard,” he said.
Public comments for the Alexandra Hotel redevelopment have been mostly supportive and express frustration the building has been allowed to deteriorate for so long. But there’s still a significant chunk of opponents who at times refer to the project as too tall and “a gross monument to greed.”
JB Ventures principal Jas Bhogal, in a statement to Bisnow, highlighted the general support of neighbors and a lengthy community process.
"The Alexandra Hotel is a gateway to Roxbury, and we’re proud of our plan to preserve, rehabilitate and redevelop this iconic building into a boutique hotel,” Bhogal said. “Throughout the community process we have been encouraged by the overwhelming support we have received for the rebirth of this building, and we look forward to the new jobs and economic activity it will bring to the neighborhood."
Roxbury resident and Dudley Square Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley, who doesn’t have a say in the Alexandra Hotel but is focused on the redevelopment of nearby Dudley Square, welcomes redevelopment of the project.
“It’s been vacant a long time, and I’m just glad to see it hopefully being returned to a good use,” Stanley said.
As other Boston neighborhoods have boomed this development cycle, Dudley Square and Roxbury haven’t seen the same rush of success.
Boston spent $124M to renovate the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square into a new headquarters for Boston Public Schools. There was also a push for improved retail in the area, but places like Tasty Burger and the Dudley Dough pizza shop quickly came and went.
Forty-five percent of Roxbury’s housing stock is income-restricted, according to a November affordable housing report the city released. Stanley feels the real number is much higher and, for the neighborhood to tackle its boarded-up storefronts, it is going to have to allow some level of market-rate development into its borders.
“People want the cute restaurants, and you need people with disposable income to support those,” she said. “Many people here can only afford some of those places once a month. A business can’t last on once a month.”
Market-rate development doesn’t always mean expensive South End-style condos, but it is easy to grasp why Roxbury residents are hesitant to embrace developers into their borders. There is a sense the hotel is just a Trojan horse for eventual displacement.
Even neighborhood advocates who supported the Alexandra Hotel redevelopment at public meetings earlier this year said they would be watching closely to make sure the hotel operator doesn’t bar them from using public facilities like they say the nearby Residence Inn Boston Downtown/South End once did. Marriott did not respond to Bisnow’s request to comment on these claims.
Part of the Roxbury-South End dispute over the project was spurred by real estate agents and developers trying to move the South End border back to Melnea Cass Boulevard. Agents have listed homes technically in Roxbury as the South End to appeal to more affluent buyers.
While the Alexandra project may add vibrancy to an underutilized corner of the South End’s western edge, developer Related Beal on the other side of the neighborhood is pricing condos as much as $5M at its redevelopment of the Quinzani Bakery.
“In every community, especially ones that have often catered to a certain level of income, they look at the changes in other areas and are just more apt to voice their concern,” Gerding Edlen Director of Acquisitions and Development Matt Edlen said. “I think those are completely valid.”
Edlen has explored investment opportunities in Dudley Square and recognizes why longtime neighbors have doubts about major development coming to their backyards. But, like Stanley, he said some level of density that includes a market-rate component is necessary to give Roxbury the vibrancy it desires.
Back at Washington and Mass. Ave., neighbors hope the zoning and architecture board that control the fate of the Alexandra Hotel have the same awareness.
“The challenge for us is to preserve what we have, but also move into the 21st century,” Fox said. “Not everyone is going to love it, but I hope they’ll at least accept it.”
CORRECTION July 26, 9:30 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story misinterpreted Nagahiro’s comments on the neighborhood disputes. This story has been updated.