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Ferdinand plans underway

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Ferdinand plans underway
At a Sept. 29 meeting, initial design plans were presented for the Ferdinand site’s redevelopment as the Boston Public Schools headquarters and new retail space. Groundbreaking is slated for spring 2012, with an expected completion date of summer 2014. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Residents voice ideas, concerns at Dudley meeting

Seven months after Mayor Thomas Menino announced a $115 million development project at the Ferdinand site in Dudley Square, planning is underway and groundbreaking is on track for spring of 2012, according to the city’s Property and Construction Management Department (PCM).

“I can say, unequivocally, the train has left the station — this project is real,” said Joseph Mulligan, PCM’s deputy director of capital construction, at a Sept. 29 meeting of the Dudley Square Vision Advisory Task Force. “Six months from now, we’re going to start backing up trucks to the site.”

The result will be a new headquarters for a consolidated Boston Public Schools department. In addition, the new construction will create ground-floor retail spaces and public areas, such as community meeting rooms.

The meeting at Central Boston Elder Services in Dudley Square was the Ferdinand project design team’s first chance to present its plans to the Task Force, made up of community and business group representatives and members of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee. State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, both of whose districts include Dudley Square, were present for part of the evening.

Over the course of the meeting, details emerged: The new building will be approximately 152,000 square feet and six to eight stories high, possibly with varied roof height. The offices will hold 522 employees of BPS and other education- or youth-related agencies. Ideas for retail businesses include food service (restaurant or lunch spot), pharmacy and boutique, with some spaces as small as 1000 square feet. Other municipal services, such as a place to pay parking tickets or obtain permits, may also be onsite. The target completion date is summer 2014.

The design firm Sasaki Associates, of Watertown, Mass., was selected in June, said Maureen Anderson, a senior project manager with PCM. Prior to Sasaki’s involvement, an assessment of the school department’s needs was conducted by Gensler, an architectural firm with expertise in municipal buildings.

Victor Vizgaitis, of Sasaki, introduced Francine Houben, creative director at Mecanoo, an architectural firm from The Netherlands partnering with Sasaki in the Ferdinand design.

Houben, in town from Amsterdam for the week, said plans are still at a very early stage and would incorporate community input.

“Don’t expect design yet,” she said. “First we have to listen to you.”

She emphasized that retail and public spaces would be on the ground floor or first two floors, with administrative offices above. The main entrance to the office building may face Dudley Station, she speculated.

Among her slides was a drawing showing a widened sidewalk around the point of the old Ferdinand building’s triangular facade, with café tables to form an inviting meeting spot in the heart of Dudley Square. “Imagine,” she said, “How can you make the Ferdinand and the buildings around it more alive? Maybe just by giving it more public space.”

Houben lavished praise on the 360-degree view she had glimpsed from the Ferdinand rooftop of both the downtown skyline and the city’s green space.

Mulligan and Anderson fielded questions from the Task Force and an audience of a few dozen local residents. Comments and questions ranged from passionate hope for Dudley Square’s future, to suspicion that the community will be disappointed or lied to, to concerns about parking and construction dust.

Several people spoke of bringing vibrancy to the neighborhood with businesses that remain open past daytime hours.

“There is such opportunity with that rooftop,” suggested Kai Grant, 42. “It’s one of our golden eggs.” Grant, a Dudley Square Main Streets board member who leads the organization’s economic restructuring committee, said she could give “a zillion” ideas to the designers, some based on focus groups with community members. “Let’s talk about a sports bar. Let’s talk about nightlife,” she said, “[So people] don’t have to go to the South End to go out at night.”

The most heated conversations revolved around minority representation in the planning and construction.

“You have some nice presentations, but where are the minorities?” asked Ken Guscott. “Right now we have the white community preaching to the black community about how it’s done.” Guscott, a long time community advocate who touted his “86 years in the business,” called for the planners to involve young minority people in the community, “so when this building’s done, we have a cadre of young people who know how to do the next building.”

Anderson said bids are in from four large New England contractors, but subcontractors for 17 trades, such as electricians, plumbers and masons, have yet to be selected. Mulligan noted that subcontractors are more likely to be smaller, local operations, and that’s where the minority hiring is likely to happen.

Local resident Priscilla Flint pressed him on that point. “With all due respect, I’ve been in this city for a long time, and most of the construction done is not done by people of color,” she said. “So is there going to be anything done to incorporate more minority contractors?”

In Boston, city-funded construction projects are required to follow a 50-25-10 rule, with 50 percent of jobs going to local residents, 25 percent to people of color and 10 percent to women. But attendees were clearly concerned that this rule might not be followed, or that it’s not enough.

Task Force member Jumaada Smith challenged the “so-called minority” hiring. “Were not hiring African American men,” she said. “We’re hiring Latinos and others, but not African Americans. We have to have a consciousness about this. We have to fix it.”

The recent Area B-2 police station construction nearby was cited as a good model for minority hiring. On that project, they exceeded the requirements, Mulligan said. For the Ferdinand project, they will do similar outreach to local companies and workers about job opportunities, the application process, required certifications and the like, he said.

Dana Whiteside, deputy director of community development for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and project manager for the Dudley Square Vision Project, reminded the audience that an Oct. 27 meeting will focus on jobs, and that minority hiring questions could be addressed there.

He allowed Councilor Jackson to have the last word.

“The Ferdinand is not simply a building, but a functional monument to a commitment the city has to this community,” Jackson said. He welcomed the people “from Holland and from Watertown,” but said he expects to see them walking around Dudley Square by day and by night to see what the community is about.

“We hear complaints about the Filene’s building downtown. That’s been a hole in the ground for four years. This one’s been 40 years,” he said. “We have a monumental opportunity here, and we are drawing a line in the sand about what we can do in the future.”

As the meeting adjourned, grumbling erupted about various issues. Sevina Payne, 57, a longtime Roxbury resident, questioned how an architect who “just got off a plane” could understand the area. But she is more worried about the “old boy network” getting away with insufficient local and minority hiring. “These people need to be held to task,” she said.

“Is the city going to do what it says?” asked Task Force member Sarah-Ann Shaw, conversing with others after the meeting. Shaw, a well-known community leader and Boston’s first African American television news reporter, didn’t want to call herself skeptical, but she concluded, “Seeing is believing.”