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A missed opportunity for community redevelopment

Melvin B. Miller

The decision of Partners HealthCare system to reject a proposal to establish an administrative office in Roxbury has raised questions about whether nonprofit organizations ought to consider the social consequences of their business policies.

The conventional standard for the development of real estate projects is that the property be put to the highest and best use. In major cities, this standard is especially significant because of the usual scarcity of buildable land. Fortunately, under the administration of Tom Menino, Boston has had a mayor who understands that real estate development is more than the creation of architectural gems and good business ventures. The development of communities and neighborhoods is equally significant.

Menino has launched development projects in Roxbury that will beneficially change the character of the community. Decades ago, before retailers moved to the shopping malls, Dudley Square was Boston’s second largest retail center. Kresges, Duttons, Woolworth’s and other stores that have faded into history were located there. And in a commanding position in the square was Ferdinand’s, Boston’s largest furniture store.

Times change and the multi-level department stores have been replaced with strip malls. Ferdinand’s has long since closed and the building was deteriorating. In stepped Menino with a dynamic plan to revive the square. The skeleton of Ferdinand’s will become the signature of a new headquarters for the Boston Public Schools. The building will also provide space for retailers and restaurants.

A short distance away, the development of the Bartlett Yard on Washington Street will provide another economic boost to the community. There will be apartments for rent, convenient shops and homes for sale. This development is possible because Menino had the foresight to resist Walmart’s plans for a big box store at that location.

A few blocks away down Ruggles Street is the Tremont Crossing project on a site opposite the police station that will include office space, parking, retail shops, restaurants and the Afro American Artists Museum. A major tenant was to be Partners. They were considering a lease for administrative offices to accommodate 4,500 employees, but they now plan to locate at Assembly Square in Somerville.

Menino’s plans for Roxbury are already showing fruition. According to the Boston Business Journal (Nov. 15-21) the resident population is becoming more racially diverse and residential property values are rising. The successful completion of the Tremont Crossing project would undoubtedly enhance the development of Roxbury.

Partners’ main properties are the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. All are located in Boston and are free of direct real estate taxes. One would think that there is a special obligation to benefit the city that has been so important for their success.

One must wonder whether Partners officials involved in the decision had any concern about locating in an area with a substantial African American population. Fortunately, Menino has continued to push for the development of Roxbury even as he leaves office.