The agency that guides the regulatory process for new developments in Boston did not initially notify some Roxbury residents about a proposed 12-story hotel in their neighborhood, leaving some feeling they didn’t have enough time to weigh in before the project was approved.
The reason, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency, was because the Alexandra Hotel redevelopment project was labeled as a South End project, even though the building is actually in Roxbury. The agency says it has corrected the mistake, which was first reported by The Boston Globe.
The site of the Victorian-era building, called the Hotel Alexandra when it was completed in 1875, is located on the Roxbury side of Mass. Ave., the street that serves as a border between the two neighborhoods. Developers submitted their initial proposal to the BPDA in July 2018, and over the next few months outlined their plans to restore the building's historic facade and build a 150-room hotel tower behind it.
The BPDA approved the project in March.
Jonathan Greeley, director of development review at the BPDA, says the mistake happened because South End groups have been vocal for years about redeveloping the building, which sat mostly vacant and deteriorating on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Washington Street for decades. Previous plans to develop or sell the site all fell through.
“It has been a largely South End-dominated conversation for the last several years,” Greeley says. “There’s been an intense amount of focus in the South End surrounding the project on revitalizing this location.”
Greeley says the BPDA’s website can only list projects under one neighborhood. But the mistake meant that Roxbury residents who signed up for email updates about proposals in their neighborhood did not initially get emails about the approval process for the Alexandra Hotel.
Greeley says in the future, when a new project straddles a neighborhood border, emails will go out to each nearby neighborhood.
In a statement, the BPDA says it started sending emails about the hotel project to both neighborhoods in February, after residents brought the problem to the agency's attention. The statement also stresses that the BPDA had already notified Roxbury residents about the project in other ways, such as by placing notices about public meetings in The Bay State Banner.
The developers say they always knew their project was in the Roxbury zoning district, although they did not catch the BPDA’s mistake. Their letter of intent and a more detailed project notification form both note that the development site is in Roxbury.
Thomas Calus, one of the developers, argues that the Alexandra Hotel project will help the neighborhood. The development plan promises that the hotel will employ local valet companies and offer construction and cooking internships to students at Roxbury’s Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.
“This is an investment that we’re making in the neighborhood, and we want to obviously be good neighbors and be part of the community,” Calus says.
But some residents are raising questions about the project, beyond the city's apparent geographical error. Some public comments raise concerns that a new boutique hotel will contribute to rising rents and gentrification in the area.
Jas Bhogal, Calus’ development partner, says he doesn’t think the hotel will cause a rent spike.
“I think gentrification is part of a city process that is constant. There is already a hotel in that neighborhood, so I’m not sure we will be pricing anybody out,” says Bhogal.
Mohamed Vandi, a tax analyst who grew up in Roxbury near the Alexandra Hotel site, says to him the neighborhood designation error seems like a marketing ploy — an attempt to avoid the Roxbury label.
“The South End sounds different from Roxbury,” Vandi says. “Roxbury has probably a bad connotation to it, because Roxbury is considered mostly black and poor, and the South End sounds much more affluent.”
He finds it unfair that Roxbury residents didn’t get the same notification South End residents received.
“People lived by that building for 20, 30 years when it was run-down, and now all of a sudden they don’t get a say?" Vandi asks. "Why is it that people who live blocks away in the South End get a decision on what’s happening in your neighborhood, down the street from you? Doesn’t seem fair.”
Before any construction can begin, the Alexandra Hotel still needs approval from the Zoning Board of Appeal and, confusingly, the South End Landmark District Commission. That’s because the commission’s area of oversight includes part of what the BPDA considers to be Roxbury.
If approved, developers hope to start construction before next winter.