1 DOT Building Parcel 31 DOT currently

^ is the DOT moving to Roxbury Crossing(left) from Park Square (right) ? Charlie Baker says “not so fast”

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No one is saying so, and perhaps no one has yet decided so, but from where I sit, writing this column, it looks as though there’s a plan afoot to make what used to be known as “Lower Roxbury” the new Government Center.

That, to me, is the meaning of Governor Patrick’s plan to move the Department of Transportation (DOT) from its vast building in Park Square to a large parcel of land fronting on Tremont Street hard by Roxbury Crossing.

The incoming Governor, Charlie Baker, is putting that plan on hold. He said as much to Boston media yesterday. Will he also put on hold the DOT’s plan to put its Park Square megaplex up for sale ? He did not say. Delaying that sale would seem integral to delaying any move by the DOT to upper Tremont Street.

in any case, the creation of a new Governemnt Center in the area centered on Roxbury Crossing — Tremont Street at Columbus Avenue across from Malcolm X Boulevard — seems already in place. Boston Police has its headquarters there. A large new office and residence project is under way on Madison Park’s “Parcel Nine.” The Boston School Department is moving into the Ferdinand Building (now the “Bruce Bolling Building”) right away. Northeastern University has buildings adjacent– large ones in keeping with the area’s new size.

From a purely functional point of view, it makes sense to situate Boston’s Government Center along that part of tremot street, Malcolm X Boulevard, Ruggles street, and Melnea Cass Boulevard. It’s Boston’s geographic center. Access from it to Route 93 is near and quick. There is space for plenty of parking. Car access is not next to impossible, as for Government Center’s current locus.

Relocating Government Center also makes economic sense. Its present site has enormous land value. Mayor Walsh in his 2013 campaign proposed selling City Hall and moving it to the Waterfront.

Lower Roxbury was once densely settled with residents. It had a legendary political history. James Michael Curley and “Diamond Jim” Timilty (after whom the region’s Timilty School is named) traded campaign insults 100 years ago on its Cabot Street sidewalks. But that was then. Today the region’s sole residential quarter is Madison Park, along shawmut Avenue between Cass and Malcolm X Boulevards. that, plus what remains of the forner Whittier Street projectrs, soon to be subsumed within the megaplex planned for “Parcel Nine” hard by the spacious Tropical Foods supermarket now nearing completion.

Governor Patrick argues that moving DOT’s 2400 workers into lower Roxbury would enormously catapult business growth locally : boutiques, restaurants, all manner of personal service , from beauty parlors to movie houses and internet cafes. He is surely ciorrect. Equally there’d be a bullish impact on home prices in Roxbury — already a windfall windfall to lucky long-term owners. Moving the DOT onto upper Tremont Street would surely boost home prices even higher.

And yet…..

If the DOT really does relocate to Tremont Street, will not the rest of Government Center almost ineviatbly follow ?

And if it does, can Roxbury possibly not be transformed, a kind of second downtown packed with high-end condominiums, expensive town houses, and an almost entirely new population ? Surely the remaking of Roxbiury, already astir, puts the area’s fifty years as the heart of Black Boston on end-game.

Roxbury’s Black-Boston phase has been sliding for several decades. The end of housing segregation in the 1970s allowed well-off people of color to depart “Sugar Hill” (upper Humboldt Avenue, Elm Hill) for Newton, Milton, Canton, Needham; most did so. The transformation of the South End into a million-dollar zip code pushed less well-off denizens across Cass Boulevard into Roxbury proper ; today that move has already visibly changed its racial makeup ; it continues. Meanwhile, long-term residents, their homes suddenly worth lottery ticket money, are cashing in and moving to wherever ; and this turnover continues too.

It is this tide that has current Roxbury residents so concerned about the DOT’s plans. For not everyone is moving out or moving in. Those who live in Roxbury and want to continue living in the kind of Roxbury they feel comfortable living in (and that comfort involves, for some, that the area remain majority Black) realize that change happens; but they are not eager to speed it up. Thus the unease being ruited now about the “Parcel 3” DOT plan.

Yet Roxbury has never been a neighborhood of stability. Its central locus has always assured — from the very beginning, in 1630 — that it would be a pass-through, not a destination; and a pass-through it has always been. 100 years ago, it was German and Latvian; then it became irish, Jewish, and italian; then Black and Cape Verdean; and now it is becoming new-Boston. Those who live in Roxbury live in a kind of bus station — Dudley Station writ large — through which dozens of buses are constantly arriving and departing.

Not that the fact makes living it any easier.

There are many corners of Roxbury in which one wishes stability could prevailIs hard not to love Fort Hill as is, the Victorian mansions, brick townhouses, curvy narrow streets, steep slopes, and legendary Fort Hill tower ; difficult to see Saint James Street, a similar hilltop refuge of quiet, becoming something else; easy not to want turnover in the beautiful brick townhouses along Woodward Avenue, Brook Avenue, and West Cottage Street; and pleasant to preserve, as they are, the 125-year-old mansions of Winthrop, Montrose, and Moreland Streets.

These corners of Roxbury, and many others, may well maintain something of what they are today. but who occupies them will change big-time. Given the enormous changes happening in Center City — think 50,000, maybe more, new, well-off residents stacked in high-rises all through Downtown, the Wateront, and the Seaport — there is no way that Roxbury, which abuts the leading edge of this tsunami of transformation, can fend off the flood.

I think every Roxbury person knows this. So the neighborhood is asking to be invited into the process; to state its concerns; to propose emendations; and to be, in some way, part of the change rather than its discards.

Let the conversation begin.

—- Mike Freedberg / for Roxbury Here


  1. “Will Roxbury Be The Next Government Center” is an unusually thoughtful look at the proposed relocation of the Mass. Dept. of Transportation headquarters to Parcel 3 in Lower Roxbury. I applaud the inclusion of the rich demographic, cultural, political and architectural history of the community, along with a look into what the next decades might bring if the development goes forward. I have to agree that Lower Roxbury might become a second government center, with all that implies in terms of density, rents and home prices. As noted, a discussion needs to begin about whether local residents will be able to stay and realize benefits in the form of jobs, business opportunities and hew housing.

    Michael Freedberg’s post seems to argue that it is the combination of the DOT HQ on Parcel 3 along with other projects in Lower Roxbury that could create a danger of displacement. I would argue that the Parcel 3 development plan alone poses such a danger. The Parcel 3 situation in Roxbury is analogous to that of the South End in the 1960s-70s-80s at the Tent City site, a similarly sized (8+ acres) vacant urban renewal parcel. At the Tent City site, the BRA for decades pushed for a dense development of commercial uses and high-end residential. The community resisted, focusing on the displacement likely to occur based on the foreseeable effects of the BRA project: rising neighborhood-wide rents and home prices. The same effects are foreseeable from the current Parcel 3 plan. The 300 housing units planned alongside the DOT HQ have no affordability restrictions in place (apart from the minimal inclusion zoning 15% requirement). It is foreseeable that this single housing development will set off a new escalation of rents and home prices, making Roxbury more unaffordable to low-income renters and and middle-income renters and buyers. I say “foreseeable” based on the Tent City experience and the more recent studies of the real causes of gentriifcation across the U.S. [see note 1 below] The replication of the Parcel 3 plan on other local parcels, as part of a second government center, would almost certainly accelerate that trend, absent affordability restrictions.

    Hopefully, a thoughtful discussion will take place with full consideration of the foreseeable effects of the Parcel 3 development. There is certainly enough wisdom in the community to develop a plan that enlivens, enriches and empowers Lower Roxbury without displacement. I hope that tenants, as the majority of the community, will have appropriate representation in those discussions.

    One minor quibble: I think the Roxbury Here article’s reference to Madison Park Development Corporation’s planned “Parcel 9” residential and office complex is confusing. Madison Park is the developer of Parcel 10 and of the proposed Whittier Street BHA housing redevelopment, and I’m not sure if there is a large office component in either of those developments.

    –David Price @nuestradavid

    Note 1: David Price, Home Matters! blog, “What Causes Gentrification? Three Theories”, July 10, 2014 http://urlin.it/12bdce

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