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Crosstown Center: A work still in progress

Jin-ah Kim | 6/5/2009, 7:07 a.m.

Back in 2002, at an event celebrating the start of construction on the massive Crosstown Center development, Mayor Thomas M. Menino sounded bullish about the project’s prospects.

“This project will be a major economic catalyst for this area and for the city as whole,” said Menino. ‘This is an exciting milestone.”

Over the past five years, Crosstown Center has fulfilled some of that potential, with its centerpiece hotel continuing its financial growth and residents reporting improved safety in the surrounding community.

But several key contributors to Crosstown’s founding admit that even five years after Menino’s pronouncement, the development still has a very low public profile. Some of the center’s retail proprietors say they are unable to draw enough customers to their stores to stay afloat, and that slow sales could force them to pull up stakes.

Many shared Menino’s high expectations for the center, due in part to its location at the high-traffic intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue — easily accessible from I-90 or I-93, immediately adjacent to Boston Medical Center, and just a stone’s throw from Northeastern University, the Fenway and the Longwood medical area.

The location has been a draw. Crosstown Center is now home to a 10-story, 175-room Hampton Inn and Suites hotel, which opened in June 2004; 208,000 square feet of office space, with tenants now moving in; a car rental business; a spa; and several restaurants.

But Yvonne Jones, owner of the center’s Halisi Day Spa and Salon, says she is concerned by the low amount of customers she has seen over the last few months. During a recent interview, there was one customer in the spa shop.

“At first, I was quite excited about this location,” Jones says, pointing out commuters in nearby medical centers and office buildings. “But people are just so anxious to get to their homes, they rush off the bus, right to their car, they don’t care about anything else around. That’s a disappointing thing.”

Adding to the difficulty in drawing foot traffic, Jones says she has had problems reaching the surrounding community, despite what she called extensive advertising and marketing like distributing flyers around nearby neighborhoods and reaching out to hotel customers.

The name recognition problem extends beyond Jones’ spa — three spokespeople for Boston Medical Center, Crosstown’s next-door neighbor, said in telephone interviews that they had never heard of the Crosstown Center development.

Shirley Carrington is the interim executive director of Boston Connects Inc., the nonprofit group charged with implementing the strategic plan for the Boston Empowerment Zone and a funding source that invested $6 million in the Crosstown project. She says the center — specifically its name — has been grossly under-publicized.

“What people know about is the hotel. When you say ‘Hampton Inn,’ I think you will get good reactions,” says Carrington. “But when you say ‘Crosstown Center,’ the response is, ‘What is that? Where is that?’”

Carrington says that some of Crosstown’s retailers have struggled to stay profitable since day one, and probably are going to move out if the situation lingers. She says she hopes that new tenants moving into the 208,000 square feet of office space would boost commercial activity in the center.

On the other hand, the hotel business has continued to grow, according to Philippe Tucker, manager of Hampton Inn and Suites. He says his hotel has 49 employees, the majority coming from the so-called “empowerment zone,” an area in need of sustained community development.

More than just jobs, Tucker says, the hotel has also contributed to enhanced safety.

“It used to be an area where there was relatively nothing here, desolate,” he says. “It used to be a lot of homeless across the street, panhandlers.”

The hotel team and community members committed to make the area safe by adding more lighting and security forces. These days, Tucker says, he rarely hears any concerns about the security, which used to be raised frequently.

“I know that just from talking to the people over the years in the community, the hotel being here is a source of pride for them,” he says.

Despite a prime location touted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority as “the Gateway to Boston,” the Roxbury land that Crosstown Center occupies had been neglected by developers until its conversion started in 2002, helmed by a minority-led partnership including local developers Kirk Sykes, Tom Welch, Gene Sisco and the Corcoran Jennison Company.

“It is the gateway, obviously, but there was not effective demand before,” says Welch, one of the project’s main developers. He says it was difficult to attract investment to the project because for years, Roxbury had been viewed as a high-risk area that was plagued by violence, unemployment and low income.

“People wondered if the place was safe,” he adds.

On top of that, uncertainty surrounded the scope of work needed to clean up the site for development.

Previous developments on the land had included several lead manufacturing companies, including paint pigment manufacturers and plumbing equipment suppliers, as well as several gasoline stations.

“It was more industrial,” Welch says. “It wasn’t very inviting for people to either live or work.”

To make it more inviting, Crosstown developers removed approximately 29,000 tons of contaminated soil from the plot. The clean-up effort earned them both the Brownfields Project of the Year Award and the Environmental Justice Award from the Environmental Business Council of New England in 2003.

To date, the Crosstown project has been through two phases of development. The first phase — the building of the hotel, 21,500 square feet of retail, restaurant and commercial space and a 650-space garage — cost $65 million, while the second phase — the 208,000 square feet of office space, another 30,000 square feet of retail space and an additional 600 parking spaces in the garage — cost $75 million. Actual costs for both phases were almost the same as the budgets, according to Cameron Pete, a project director from Corcoran Jennison.

The city invested nearly $17 million in cash and land to fund Crosstown’s first phase. In exchange, Crosstown agreed to hire about 45 percent of project workers from the community’s empowerment zone, a promise that Boston Connects’ Carrington says Crosstown kept. No such promise was made for the second phase, which was financed without city assistance.

According to developer Welch, a high number of union workers took priority over the mostly non-union workers from the empowerment zone on the second phase of the job, preventing Crosstown from reaching the same percentage as the first phrase.

“At the time, the Big Dig was completed, the [Boston] Convention [and Exhibition] Center was completed … so there were a lot of union workers who were looking for work,” says Welch. “We were not pleased with how we ended up there.” He says his team will keep trying to hire as many local community members as possible.

Welch says Crosstown’s third phase will include the construction of one or two more buildings at a cost of roughly $90 million on the parcel’s remaining 300,000 square feet of space, bringing the project’s total cost to an estimated $230 million.

Some Roxbury residents, like Lisa Martin, have warmly welcomed this huge influx of capital into the community.

“I moved to Roxbury three years ago, and I am so happy that I did,” says Martin. “It was impressive to see how much money they put into this neighborhood.” She says that the Crosstown Center is one of the biggest developments for the last decade, immediately changing the look of the area.

Another influx could pump up the Crosstown Center’s profile and give flagging retailers more potential customers to draw into their stores.

Members of the neighboring medical community looking to expand operations are seeing large, available office space just across the way at the center, and they’re taking advantage.

Two new tenants, Boston University Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will move their administrative and research personnel into new office space at the center by next month, according to Chris Murphy, Crosstown’s general manager. Murphy says the new tenants will bring approximately 1,000 newcomers to the center’s offices.

“It’s going to make, on the whole, a lot more activity going from the Boston Medical Center up to this neck of the woods,” says Murphy.

The new office space is about 95 percent occupied at this point, says Welch.

“We expected 100 percent occupied at some point. It’s on target,” he added.

Some in the center say they believe — and others hope — that the new tenants will bring some positive changes, particularly for troubled shop-owners.

“Nine hundred people coming in the building next door will benefit all of the retailers,” says hotel manager Tucker, “because [at] any time, you can have a captive audience right there.”

Tucker says that in 2008, he and Crosstown’s other retailers plan to concentrate on developing the center’s brand recognition as the “Gateway to Boston.”

“If we get the word out more, it is going to be thriving,” says Turner.

“It’s beginning,” agrees Murphy. “People will realize this is a new neighborhood.”