Developers plan big-store mall on long-vacant site

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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The latest developer to tackle a long-vacant tract near Boston Police Department headquarters proposes to fill it with large stores similar to those at the sprawling South Bay Plaza strip mall, with a key exception: It would not look like South Bay.

Ruggles Place would instead have an urban aesthetic: The buildings would go up, not outward around a massive parking lot. The architecture and signs would be more like what’s found in downtown Boston, rather than at suburban strip malls.

“It’s a much different look,’’ said Barry Feldman, whose company, Feldco Development, has been brought in by Elma Lewis Partners, which was designated in 2007 to develop eight city-owned acres on Tremont Street in Roxbury known as Parcel 3.

Ruggles Place would also include offices, an art museum, street-level shops, a parking garage, and a large public plaza.

A previous plan for housing has been dropped, but could be revived later.

Elma Lewis Partners is an offshoot of the National Center for Afro-American Artists Inc. The Parcel 3 team includes veteran Boston developer Tom Welch, the Stull and Lee Inc. architecture firm, and the celebrated architect Graham Gund.

Sandwiched between Roxbury Community College’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center and a housing development, Parcel 3 has for years been a Menino administration priority. But it has languished due to a series of political and financial roadblocks. Last month, Elma Lewis Partners received its third extension of time from the city in four years, winning 18 months to show it can move forward with construction.

With Feldco as a development partner — and at a time when the economy is recovering from a recession that dragged down commercial real estate — city leaders are optimistic development will finally begin.

They said numerous retailers have expressed interest, including Target Corp., Kohl’s Corp., TJX Cos., and Lowe’s Cos.

“This might be their best chance,’’ said John Palmieri, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “They’ve got a new team and the economy is improving, so we’re encouraged by what we’re seeing.’’

The developers still have a long road ahead, though, including navigating a lengthy city review process. And getting interest from retailers is one thing; now they need to persuade enough retailers to sign leases in order to line up financing for construction.

Feldco, based in New Canaan, Conn., has a track record, having built the 300,000-square-foot Eagle Square shopping center in Providence and a large retail complex near Portland, Maine.

The Roxbury project would be its first in Boston.

Ruggles Place’s 600,000-square-foot retail center would be four stories high, with one or two stores on each level, differentiating it from the suburban shopping malls occupied by dozens of stores and restaurants. The developers said they want to give the property local flavor by enticing Boston chefs and club owners to open in the smaller spaces that are planned along Tremont Street.

“We’re trying to rebalance our plan to give it uniqueness and cultural and educational elements,’’ said Barry Gaither, a principal of Elma Lewis Partners and director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, which would move its museum to Ruggles Place.

The museum would have about 58,000 square feet and include a theater to present live performances and films; paintings, sculpture, and other works reflecting the heritage of black artists around the world would be displayed. The museum would, in part, be funded with rents from the stores and offices, although the developers declined to estimate how much.

They are planning more than 300,000 square feet for offices above the museum.

Despite the sluggish market for new office space, Feldco said, the team hopes to land medical or academic tenants from the nearby Longwood Medical Area.

Casey Ross can be reached at