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Nubian Square's 'Long Overdue' Development Is Taking Steps Forward

Greg Janey has fond memories of Nubian Square, formerly known as Dudley Square, Boston's geographic center and a bustling commercial district for most of the 20th century.

“There were merchant stores that lined Washington Street,” said Janey, a sixth-generation Roxbury resident and the president and CEO of Janey Construction Management. “Clothing stores, drug stores, soda fountain stores. We sat there while our parents were shopping. That’s what Dudley was all about."

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Boston city officials are slated to select a proposal for the long-vacant Blair Lot at the center of Roxbury's Nubian Square next month.

Dudley Square was known as “the other downtown" and was for a time the largest economic center in New England behind downtown Boston. A lack of investment, white flight to the suburbs, redlining from the 1950s through 1970s and the removal of the elevated Orange Line train in 1987 left large swaths of land undeveloped.

“When you look at how Dudley has been dormant, for whatever reason — we can speak 10 hours about why — the response is overdue,” Janey said.  

Janey is part of a group vying to redevelop Parcel 8, a 47K SF plot in the center of Nubian Square off Washington Street, tabbed for redevelopment to complete a vision for revitalization that began 16 years ago. City officials are weighing proposals for three sites within a block of Parcel 8 while drafting requests for proposals for two additional nearby sites.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency will decide the fate of Blair Lot next month, determining whether to select the lone proposal remaining for the 88K SF parking lot of the former Blair’s Foodland. The open space on Washington Street at the Square’s center has sat undeveloped since 1985.

City officials in December will also select the suitor for the 11K SF Nawn Factory, a 130-year-old brick structure adjacent to Blair Lot, which competing bidders Historic Boston Inc. and art @ the Nawn Factory hope to transform into a community wellness center or rehearsal studio, respectively.

At Parcel 8 at the northern end of the Square, three development teams composed of locally based construction, development, arts and cultural organizations propose mixed-use retail, affordable housing and cultural sites.

BPDA officials in a virtual meeting Monday evening said they aren’t obligated to select the current proposals for Blair Lot and Nawn Factory and can restart the RFP process, although planners didn’t indicate they would leave next month’s meeting empty-handed.

The proposals all pledge a revival of Nubian Square’s vibrant past, which included department stores, banks, hotels, movie theaters and a bowling alley. Immigrants and Black people from the South migrated to the region after World War II, but a series of issues led to chronic disinvestment.

Madison Park Development Corp. CEO Leslie Reid said the region “lost a lot of [the] vitality” it had in the earlier 20th century. The MPDC, founded in 1966, is a nonprofit that develops affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents and claims to be among the nation’s first community development corporations.

The group was among the first to protest the proposed extension of Interstate 95 through the area, an effort that removed large swaths of land in the Square from public use, even though the highway extension was abandoned in the 1970s.

Former Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration formed the first Roxbury Strategic Master Plan in 2004, seeking to redevelop plots vacant since the mid-1980s, but Reid said market cycles led the plan to stagnate.

“We had all the hope in the world, and there was a global economic crisis, never mind changes in leadership and administration in the city,” Reid said. “All these things combined to a very measured pace.”

Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee co-Chairperson Norman Stembridge agreed with Reid and said development planning was stalled for approximately five years before picking up in the mid-2010s.

“There were not many who could take on projects like this,” Stembridge said. “Honestly, we were not looking to deal with deep-pocketed developers who would come into this community and literally not pay attention to anything the community said.”

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The Davis Cos. Managing Director Quentin Davis, Janey Construction President and CEO Gregory Janey and Sasaki principal Zach Chrisco at a February 2020 Bisnow event.

Redevelopment began with the former Ferdinand furniture building, sitting at the Washington Street and Warren Street split at the center of the neighborhood, which became Boston Public Schools’ headquarters in 2015.

Four years earlier, the new Boston Police Department headquarters was completed a few blocks to the west. The renovation of the nearby Boston Public Library on Dudley Street was completed earlier this month. Community groups also successfully pushed to change the Square’s moniker in 2019, which took after Thomas Dudley, a Massachusetts governor in the 1600s who helped the colony sanction slavery. Nubian recalls the ancient Egyptian Nubian Empire in Africa.

The area doesn’t have a significant office footprint beyond the BPS headquarters, and it doesn’t fit into any of the city’s major neighborhoods tracked by analysts. Lower Roxbury includes approximately 1.2M SF of office space, with just 200K SF coming online since 2010, CoStar Group Market Analyst Todd Galvin said.

“There historically hasn’t been a large commercial base in that area, in that neighborhood,” Colliers Managing Director for Research and Client Services in Boston Aaron Jodka said. “Seeing a new Nubian Square with commercial activity is exciting. It’s what these neighborhoods are looking for.”

The neighborhood is dotted with about 1,000 apartments, about two-thirds of which were built only in the last decade.

The Nubian Square Ascends proposal is pledging to construct a 48K SF marketplace for artisans, a food hall and 135K SF of office space, which would bring 1,000 workers to the Blair Lot. Developer Richard Taylor's Nubian Square Development LLC entity has partnered with Kai and Christopher Grant of the local Black Market community organization on the proposal. 

“We think that this project, which will activate the Roxbury arts and culture district, will support many of the local artists and local businesses and bring entertainment,” Taylor said. “And all of that culminates in bringing purchasing power to the Square, which we think it needs in order to be revitalized.”

One proposal for Parcel 8 is from NUBA LLC, an entity led by Urbanica Co., the developer of the recently completed Melnea Cass Hotel and Residences across from Parcel 8, which is partnering with the National Housing Partnership Foundation and touts support from a dozen community businesses. 

NUBA proposes over 100 units, two-thirds of which would be affordable housing, with 10K SF of commercial space and a home for a satellite museum for the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

“It’s very important these parcels get development built as quickly as possible,” Urbanica Co. principal Karman Zahedi said. “By having these parcels empty, it’s creating safety issues and creating lots of other not pleasant consequences in the area. We don’t want to create gentrification — we [want to] create enough wealth in the community.” 

NuGateway, a minority-led partnership, is proposing a 15-story structure at Parcel 8, including 70 affordable units of the plan’s 103 total, and is pitching a Public Market and arts center on the 220K SF proposal’s first floor. Representatives for NuGateway, led by developer Groma, didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Janey and New Urban Collaborative principal Jefrey DuBard propose an ambitious mass-timber build at Parcel 8, which they said would be the first of its kind in Boston. The NUC proposal touts 130 rental units, 60K SF of retail space, an 8K SF plaza, a Museum of African American History and King Boston, a nonprofit currently working on a memorial for one-time Boston resident the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Boston. 

DuBard spoke of the importance of including King Boston and the museum at the proposal site and reflected on his experience visiting the Museum of African American History in Beacon Hill 4 miles away.  

“I’m surprised how vividly I remem