Formula for urban rehab: Part 1 of 3

June 15, 2005 | Community action, Development, Economics, Preservation, Urban renewal

So you want to be an urban re-developer?


“I can make this neighborhood .. come alive!”

Nuestra Comunidad’s recently completed historic rehabilitation of Roxbury’s Dartmouth Hotel tells an extraordinary story (for a full report, see Affordable Housing Finance’s useful writeup) illustrative of the many challenges and principles of renovating urban neighborhoods:


1. The time has to be ripe

Though it is less than two miles from downtown Boston, Dudley Square, in the heart of Roxbury —


— has long been a very tough neighborhood:

The Dudley area of Roxbury/North Dorchester is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston. This diverse community of African American (37%), Latino (29%), Cape Verdean (25%) and White (7%) residents has a per capita income of $7,600 compared to nearly $16,000 for the City of Boston as a whole. The median family income for the area is $20,848. The unemployment rate is around 16%. Approximately 32% of the area’s population falls below the poverty level.

Located less than two miles from downtown Boston in Roxbury/North Dorchester, the DSNI neighborhood has a staggering amount of vacant land (21%) — vestiges of fires in the ’60’s and ’70’s. The neighborhood is one of the poorest areas in Massachusetts. Dudley Street is a trilingual neighborhood of 5,455 African-American, Latin American, Cape Verdean, and White families.

Roxbury’s economic decline began shortly after World War II, as a combination of south-to-north urban migration, white flight to the suburbs, and credit withdrawal from ‘obsolete’ cities led to a virtual crash of property values. Though the area hit its nadir in the mid-Seventies, so entrenched were the interdependent cycles of poverty, perception, lack of investment, that it has taken several factors to give Roxbury a flicker of hope:

  1. Thirty years of gradually changing perceptions.
  2. An expanding non-white entrepreneurial middle class.
  3. A sustained economic boom in Boston.

That story is writ small in a specialty shop resident in the Dartmouth throughout its decline:

A Nubian Notion, which consists of a convenience store and an Afro-centric gift shop also known as the Annex, has been a tenant in the building since 1969. The store was started by Abdal-Khallaq’s husband, Malik. A Nubian Notion was one of the first stores to manufacture and sell dashikis and Afro picks in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Artist Paul Goodnight, 58, of the South End, said that he bought his first Afro pick at the store around 1963. When he started his own business in 1986, he began selling his calendars, prints, and gift items to the store.

“A Nubian Notion has been a staple in my life for years since I was a child,” said Goodnight. “I have always known the father, the sons and daughters. These people continue to exemplify what young black people should look for other than basketball and singing to make a real living and being a real entrepreneur with strong values. It’s a related conversation, not just sales.”


Malcolm X spent his formative years in Roxbury

2. Community organizing attracts resources

For more than twenty years, the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative has been creating a community political sensibility:

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) is a nonprofit community-based planning and organizing entity based in the Roxbury/North Dorchester area of Boston. DSNI’s approach to neighborhood revitalization is comprehensive (physical, environmental, economic and human). It was formed in 1984 when residents of the Dudley Street area came together out of fear and anger to revive their neighborhood that was nearly devastated by arson, disinvestment, neglect and redlining practices, and protect it from outside speculators.

With that community sensibility has come an extraordinary delegation of public authority:

DSNI is the only community-based nonprofit in the country which has been granted eminent domain (.pdf version here) authority over abandoned land within its boundaries.

My posts on Kelo and Lingle have taken as self-evident that eminent domain is an essential tool of urban revitalization. No matter how awful an urban environment may be, somebody is profiting from it, and that somebody need not be civic-minded. Indeed, in the Darwinian evolutionary marketplace, natural selection tends to produce as slumlords those who relish being slumlords. If they can block parcel assembly to critical mass, then either the dysfunction continues, or an exorbitant cost is paid. So eminent domain, in my view, is essential.

The striking thing here is that an essentially governmental function — no matter the price paid and no matter the procedural gloss, this is still the use of the policy power to seize property — has been delegated to an unaccountable body. Whatever else that may be, it is a remarkable expression of the public trust, possibly only in a local context with a very close the link between the unaccountable body and the elected sovereign who has granted it

3. Community turnaround requires tackling the trophy buildings

The Dartmouth Hotel is ideally located, right in Dudley Square:


It has a distinguished century-plus history:

Originally called the Hotel Dartmouth, the structure was built by architect John Roulstone Hall in 1871, according to Christine Beard, historical preservation consultant for the project.

“It is an important building, landmark building,” said Beard. “It has gone through major changes, a lot of demolitions, and a lot of new construction. It is amazing that the building survived and is still a gateway to the Dudley Station area.”

Major tenants during the 1880s and 1890s included caterer and confectioner H.J. Seiler, Drury’s Lunch, and Dudley Bank, said Beard. By the 1930s, the Dartmouth Hotel had been converted mainly into office space, with a tenant list including The Roxbury Free Press, Dudley Tailors, and the Hawaiian School of Music.


The Dartmouth Hotel in its heyday (1895)

By any standard, the building is historic: and visually admirable in a heavy-footed Victorian way. All that marble (a marble exterior!) and stone deserves polishing and tenancy. Yet for more than twenty years, it sat largely vacant, the ground floor occupied by funky shops, the upper floors empty and boarded up.

I have driven through or walked around many an urban neighborhood needing revitalization, and invariably one see at least a grand dame structure dying of neglect.


“We are not amused to be compared with an ugly structure.”

These buildings must be the turnaround’s anchor. Not only do they stand as a crumbling Ozymandias reminder of bygone days, but they are also a flashing signal to the entire investment community, the neighborhood isn’t coming back yet. We are visual creatures; we take our clues from what we see. If the neighborhood’s oldest, most historic, best built, most obvious property candidate is not renovated, it speaks volumes.

Indeed, the Dartmouth Hotel sat on the market for a long time, as the following 2001 description makes clear

Preservation Challenges (2001):

The upper floors of the Dartmouth have been vacant and boarded up for over twenty years. The owners have received offers on the building ranging from $1.6 to $2.1 million in recent years, but ultimately none of the deals has come to fruition. Most proposals call for rehabilitation of the forty-five residential units on the three upper floors as low- to moderate-income housing, with continued use of the commercial spaces on Warren and Dudley Streets. A pro forma reportedly has shown that projected commercial and residential rents cannot sustain the purchase price and high rehabilitation costs without substantial public or private subsidy. Owned by a father and his two adult sons. The family seems more interested in selling the property than in redeveloping it. They acquired it at a HUD auction in the early 1970s.

For Dudley Square to turn around, the Dartmouth Hotel must be turned around.

The Dartmouth reemerged even as Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced earlier this month plans to develop the long-vacant Ferdinand Building for city offices. [Another eminent domain taking! — Ed.]

It’s also nice to see other community development entities putting their mouths where their money is, by moving into the neighborhood: specialist urban lender Boston Community Capital is now located in Dudley Square.

Dudley Square is really the heart of the business district in the area,” said [Evelyn] Friedman [of Nuestra Comunidad, the non-profit developer]. “It’s not the final piece, but [the mayor’s decision] will complete the southern half of the square. In order for Roxbury to become what it promises to be, which is a vibrant community, the business community needs to be revitalized.”

But that leads us smack into the next challenge:


Continue reading in Part 2

Skip to Part 3