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November 15, 2019

Downtown Worcester property owner says neighborhood is undervalued

Photo | Grant Welker Bo Menkiti is the founder of the development firm the Menkiti Group, which has bought properties in downtown Worcester with plans for major investment.

The Menkiti family has quietly bought notable downtown Worcester buildings over the last two years, from the former Shack's clothing store building to a highly visible former pawn shop building across from the Hanover Theatre.

The family's development firm is based in Washington, D.C., and the initial purchase was made by Ifeanyl Menkiti, a professor at Wellesley College. But the family turned to Worcester because of its cultural strengths and for its unrealized potential, Bo Menkiti, the firm's founder and CEO told an audience at the AC Hotel Thursday evening at an economic development event by the law firm Bowditch & Dewey.

“We’re usually looking for neighborhoods that are undervalued," Menkiti said.

The firm got its start 15 years ago with a single eight-bedroom row house in Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood, which sits beyond the city's more in-demand and pricier neighborhoods such as Georgetown or Dupont Circle. In time, the Menkiti Group — which has a sister brokerage firm, Keller Williams Capital Properties — would invest more than $200 million and develop more than 1.5 million square feet of retail.

Photo | Grant Welker
The Menkiti Group is working to restore the old brick facade at 406 Main St.

Nearly all of that is in often-overlooked neighborhoods in and around Washington, largely multi-unit residential buildings and some retail space.

In Worcester, the Menkiti Group has been compiling properties along and just off Main Street, with only some work yet taking place.

The former Shack's building at 406 Main St. at the corner of Mechanic Street is envisioned for 44,000 square feet of mixed-use space. Ifeanyl Menkiti, who died in June, bought the building with plans for a cultural institute. Today, the building is surrounded by scaffolding, with part of an unsightly modern facade addition removed to unveil a worn-looking brick exterior underneath.

Photo | Grant Welker
The Menkiti Group has bought a five-story office building that also has plans for ground-floor retail.

Another Menkiti property, a four-story building at 201 Main St. across from the Worcester County Superior Court, had a covering masking a gray stone exterior. That has also been removed, with Menkiti joking about the firm buying buildings with ugly facades. The building is envisioned for first-floor retail and upper-floor offices.

Farther south down Main Street, the Menkiti Group is planning retail use at 536 Main St., a block south of City Hall seen as enough of an eyesore and potential opportunity that the public agency MassDevelopment bought the site in 2017. The Menkiti Group bought the site from MassDevelopment last fall for $800,000.

The building may be the smallest in the firm's Worcester portfolio, but it's a prominent one, Menkiti said. The vision for the property includes a neon sign reading "Theatre District Worcester," in a similar look to Seattle's Public Market Center sign.

Photo | Grant Welker
536 Main St., which the Menkiti Group envisions for retail and highly-visible new uses

“Sometimes it’s the small project that makes no economic sense that unlocks the authenticity and the energy of a neighborhood," Menkiti said.

Around the corner at 6 Chatham St., the Menkiti Group is planning 25 residential units. The firm also owns a five-story office building at 554 Main St., which has opportunities for retail use with empty storefronts today.

Menkiti spoke of cities regaining much of the population and vitality they lost through the 1990s — including Worcester — through neighborhoods with mixed-income housing, thriving commercial corridors and vibrant culture. It's those elements, and the city's pride, that attracted the family to Worcester, Menkiti said.

Photo | Grant Welker
The Menkiti Group has proposed renovating a Chatham Street building into new housing.

"Sometimes it's a gritty pride," he said, drawing some laughs.

The Menkiti family otherwise had no connections to Worcester. The younger Menkiti went to Harvard University but lives in Washington, D.C. today.

“It’s fun to be part of a community that’s re-engaging its dreamer side," he said.

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