Mayor's Ferdinand plan stirs hope for Dudley revitalization

Sandra Larson | 3/8/2011, 6:24 p.m.

Mayor Thomas Menino has announced major plans for long-awaited redevelopment of the old Ferdinand Building in the heart of Dudley Square.

“In these unsettled times, we don’t shy away from our promises,” Menino said in his annual speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau on March 3. He insisted the project is “too important ... too urgent,” not to do. “We will never know how great Boston can be until Dudley Square is great once again,” he said, according to a prepared text of the speech.

The ornate five-story building at the Y-intersection of Washington and Warren Streets once housed the popular furniture retailer Ferdinand’s Blue Store. Now vacant for three decades, it’s a sad symbol of non-action, dominating the view in Dudley Square with its blue boarded-up windows and doors.

Hopes for the Ferdinand site have risen and fallen over the years. In 2004, Gov. Mitt Romney dropped a state plan to move the Department of Public Health to the building. Mayor Menino promised at that time, and again in 2008, to begin restoration work. The city went as far as holding a competition for design proposals after taking ownership of the Ferdinand property in 2006, but plans have never gotten off the ground.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for it to actually happen,” said Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets. “A lot of businesses moved here because they thought something was going to get done with it.”

The city’s plan includes developing the Ferdinand site with $115 million in borrowed funds, relocating the headquarters of Boston Public Schools (BPS) there, and making other relocations with the aim of reducing the number of city administrative buildings from nine buildings to four, cutting operating costs.

The city will partner with a private developer, not yet selected, who will manage ground-floor retail space in the Ferdinand development. Construction is expected to begin in 12 months and the project will provide 350 construction jobs, according to a fact sheet from the mayor’s office.

An influx of 400 BPS employees into the area will be good for retailers, said Stanley, though she noted that 2,500 to 3,000 people already work in Dudley Square now.

The arrival of municipal offices does not resolve another problem she sees in the Square — that most businesses are closed after 5 p.m. The inclusion of new retail space in the refurbished building is essential, she said, potentially bringing new later-hours businesses in such as restaurants and cafes.

“It’ll be a good shot in the arm for Washington Street,” she said.

Though Stanley is optimistic about the plan, she wants to keep an eye on the process to make sure the building’s unique features are not lost.

“The Ferdinand is the center of Dudley Square. It’s what people identify with Dudley Square, second only to Dudley Station,” she said. “We want that building retained. We don’t want it replaced with some modern behemoth.”

Boston City Councilor-At-Large Felix G. Arroyo is excited about the new plan, and expressed confidence that it will go forward this time.