Menino brings Elma Lewis group back to develop P3

Yawu Miller | 4/22/2009, 6:34 a.m.
Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts President and CEO Darnell L. Williams (left) applauds as Mayor Thomas M. Menino speaks during a press conference held Friday, April 17, 2009, at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. At the press conference, Menino reinstated Elma Lewis Partners LLC as the developers of Parcel 3, a large, long-vacant plot of land in Roxbury. City of Boston Mayor’s Office

Responding to community pressure, Mayor Thomas M. Menino reinstated Elma Lewis Partners LLC as the developers of Parcel 3 in Roxbury and extended their designation for an additional 18 months.

The reversal came a week after Roxbury residents blasted the mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) at a meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, where BRA Director John F. Palmieri explained the agency’s decision to allow the clock to run out on the Elma Lewis team’s $400 million redevelopment of Parcel 3, a large, long-vacant plot on Tremont Street.

In January, the Oversight Committee, whose members are appointed by the mayor, voted unanimously in support of re-designating Elma Lewis Partners as the parcel’s developers.

At last Friday’s press conference, held at the Whittier Street Health Center, Menino acknowledged the widespread community opposition to the BRA’s decision.

“After all the meetings and all the discussions, I started asking people in the community about this,” Menino said.

The $400 million Elma Lewis Partners proposal calls for a mixture of office space, retail, parking and housing on the land that would subsidize a 232,000-square-foot art education facility for the National Center for Afro American Artists.

While Men­i­no and BRA officials said the development team failed to demonstrate the financial viability of their plan, Oversight Committee members pointed out that virtually all major development projects in the city have come to a standstill with the current credit crunch.

The Roxbury Neighborhood Council also opposed the de-designation of the Elma Lewis Partners, noted Bob Terrell, who serves as chairman.

“It was nice to see Roxbury fully unified behind this project and behind these developers,” he said. “If we remain unified like this, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.”

In addition to community opposition, Menino faced editorials in the Banner and the Boston Globe criticizing the decision to revoke the development team’s designation.

During last Friday’s press conference, Menino appeared conciliatory as he shared the podium with members of the development team and Oversight Committee. He said the developers would be required to meet every other month with members of the Oversight Committee to assess the progress of their project.

“I believe this project has the ability to strengthen this community in so many different ways,” Menino said. “This is a piece we can dedicate to Elma Lewis.”

While the loss of their designation has set them back, project manager Thomas Welch said investors are still interested in the project.

“With the support of the community, we know we can make progress,” he said.

Welch said prospective tenants are still interested in the project. Northeastern University has expressed interest in leasing academic and administrative spaces in the development, and Partners HealthCare and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are also interested in office space.

The project will also receive a boost from the Whittier Street Health Center, which will build a new, 60,000-square-foot center on the site. The center’s present location, which it leases from Northeastern University, was designed to accommodate 3,000 visits per month, but the health center is now receiving 5,000 visits per month.

Edmund Barry Gaither, executive director and curator of the Museum of the National Center for Afro American Artists, expressed gratitude for the developers’ tenacity and for the community’s support, which he said has kept the project alive.

“We are enormously grateful to the Roxbury community for the support they have shown for the vision we have for Parcel 3,” he said.