April 26, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 37
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Ruggles group gets nod to develop Parcel 3

Neal Simpson

A seven-acre plot of land on Tremont Street, now littered with chunks of concrete, rusted pipes and the carcass of a red Toyota, may soon be the home to shops, restaurants, affordable housing and a 60,000-square-foot museum for the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA).

The proposed project, called Ruggles Place, received the initial go-ahead from a committee of community members on April 26, beating out proposals from two competing developers.

“We’re very pleased,” said E.J. Walton, president of Elma Lewis Partners LLC, the developer behind Ruggles Place. “We are looking forward to an opportunity to continue working in good faith with the community to make that parcel vibrant for our youth.”

The Ruggles Place proposal now goes to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which will decide whether to award the project final designation for development on the Parcel P-3 site, located across the street from the Boston Police headquarters in Roxbury.

“The BRA will give them some time to refine the package, to make sure the letters of interest become letters of commitment,” said BRA planner Hugues Monestime.

At a meeting of the Parcel P-3 Project Review Committee (PRC) last Thursday, seven out of 10 members voted in favor of recommending the Ruggles Place project, which was designed by Elma Lewis Partners LLC in conjunction with the NCAAA. The remaining three votes went to the Heritage Common project, backed by the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund and other investors.

Madison Park Development Corporation’s controversial Tremont Center, which originally included a 300-unit Northeastern University dormitory, received no votes.

Heritage Common has countered last week’s recommendation, arguing that their project was the only one to meet a $3 per-square-foot ground lease required by the BRA. In a vote last August, the PRC ranked Heritage Common above Ruggles Place, although the vote was eventually thrown out because no developer met the minimum lease rate.

When developers resubmitted their proposals this spring, only the Heritage Common met the lease rate described in the initial request for proposal (RFP), while the other projects depended on an option-to-buy agreement — the right to be able to purchase the land in an agreed-upon period of time — to make the lease work, according to BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.

“Heritage Common takes the view that with the first vote, coupled with being the only team that responded to the $3 [ground lease], that we won the right to develop the project,” said Heritage Common general partner Richard Taylor.

Despite last week’s recommendation, Shumaker said the Heritage Common project will still be considered.

But she added that the August ranking is no longer valid.

“It’s not something we hold much weight to,” she said. “Now that [the PRC] has made a recommendation, we’ll start working with that team.”

The Ruggles Place proposal calls for a 60,000-square-foot facility for the Whittier Street Health Center, now located on Tremont Street. The old Whittier building, now abandoned, would be renovated and used by the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which would also occupy an adjacent 200,000-square-foot facility.

“Ruggles Place will be at the forefront of progressive urban revitalization,” the developers wrote in a May 2006 letter of interest. “It will be a destination that meets consumer entertainment, and employment needs in a lively urban setting without displacing existing communities.”

The project would also include a 60,000-square-foot NCAAA museum, as well as office space, shops and restaurants, and a 1,044-space parking garage.

A second phase of construction would include a 1,200- to 1,600-seat theater for the NCAAA.

Once complete, developers expect the project will bring 1,845 permanent jobs to Roxbury, which had an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent according to the 2000 Census, more than four percentage points above Boston’s rate of 7.2 percent at the time.

The construction phase will employ an additional 800 to 1,000 people.

“The land is clearly very valuable and anyone who receives the designation would make money,” said Walton, the Elma Lewis president. “But we believe that by building what we propose, the community will benefit greatly. So that’s what our goal is.”

Last Thursday’s PRC recommendation was an upset for Ruggles Place, which trailed the Heritage Common proposal in a PRC ranking conducted last August.

After the ranking was released, the BRA allowed developers to revise their proposal. Two of the projects, Heritage Common and Tremont Center, were changed substantially.

The developers behind Heritage Common scrapped early plans for a jazz center, hotel and 138 residential units, instead submitting a second proposal with over 500,000 square feet of office space but no housing.

The Tremont Center, which originally included a widely unpopular Northeastern University dormitory, fell far behind the other projects in the August ranking.

The dormitory component was missing this March, when the Madison Park Development Corporation submitted its second proposal, which included a 16,660-square-foot cultural center, a 5,052-square-foot youth center and 230 housing units.

Elma Lewis chose not to alter its project when it resubmitted the proposal.

“We had thought long and carefully about this project,” said NCAAA director Barry Gaither. “We felt that when we put forward the first proposal, we had put forth a sound, viable and beneficial proposal for our community and for the city, and we did not feel the need to rework that in any way.”

The project would allow the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, founded by the late Elma Ina Lewis in 1950, to resume its education program for the first time since 1986 when a fire destroyed the schools building on Elm Hill Avenue.

Representatives from the NCAAA, which first became involved with Parcel P-3 through a failed development project in 1988, has met with over 75 groups and individuals since 2003, Gaither said.

“We took very seriously the idea that the property belongs to the community and that the development of an idea for it should have a process of being informed by that community,” he added.

In order to get the project through the bidding process, Gaither said, the NCAAA has spent a “substantial amount of money” raised from the sale of its properties on Elm Hill Avenue.

The developer’s decision to stick to its guns may have given it a boost in Thursday’s vote.

“Ruggles Place did not change, but the other two did. That’s what made the difference,” said PRC member Dolly Battle. “Theirs was the strongest one.”

Battle, a 37-year resident of the Whittier Street housing project adjacent to Parcel P-3, said the Ruggles Place proposal was the best option for herself and her neighbors.

“It was closer to what Whittier Street wanted than anyone else,” she said.

The bidding process for Parcel P-3 has been fraught with controversy, as the BRA drew criticism for repeatedly granting deadline extensions at developers’ requests and without the approval of the PRC and the Roxbury Master Plan Oversight Committee. The initial project ranking was also tainted by conflict-of-interest allegations.

But despite the controversy, PRC and community members said they were pleased with the result.

“We were happy to see the PRC honor the process and do it correctly and give Ruggles Place an opportunity to go through [the financial portion of the RFPs] and prove themselves and see what happens,” said Julio Henriquez, president of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council and a frequent critic of the bidding process.

The Roxbury Master Plan Oversight Committee will review the PRC recommendation at its May 7 meeting at 6 p.m. at Dudley Public Library. The meeting is open to the public and representatives from Elma Lewis will be present.

“We’re very excited,” said Walton, who has worked on the project since 2000. “A little tired, but very excited.”

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