A seat at the table: Real estate developer Bo Menkiti shares vision of thriving Worcester
WORCESTER — Worcester is increasingly described as “up-and-coming” by those in and outside of the city.
For Bo Menkiti, CEO of the Menkiti Group, his vision for Worcester is about the future, when Worcester will be no longer up-and-coming but fully thriving.
The Menkiti Group is a real estate developer based primarily in Washington, D.C., but has taken an interest in transforming Worcester’s downtown, aligning with the city’s goal of creating an 18-hour downtown.
Menkiti’s father, Ifeanyi Menkiti, presented his vision for Worcester to his son years ago. A poet and former philosophy professor at Wellesley University, Ifeanyi Menkiti died in 2019, but not before he could share his affection for Worcester with his son.
Together they bought 6 Chatham St., which is now Chatham Lofts, a 3,500-square-foot, 24-unit luxury apartment building carved from what was the city’s YWCA in the 1960s.
The Menkiti Group has three active projects in construction in Worcester: 554 Main St., comprising offices and retail space; 401 Main St., the old Shack’s men’s clothing store, which now hosts a Bank of America and a freshly restored facade thanks to Menkiti; and 204 Main St., which the group is working to get listed on the state’s historic register and is listed with the National Park Service.
Not yet in development is their building at 526 Main St., next to Chatham Lofts, which the Menkiti Group is working with Mass Development to rebuild.
“My dad had big visions, so he left big shoes to fill,” Menkiti said.
Institute to amplify global causes
One such vision of Menkiti’s father was the creation of the Emengini Institute for Comparative Global Studies, a center for research aiming to address global problems by amplifying neglected voices.
Run by a professor from the University of South Africa, the Emengini Institute will be located in the upper level of 554 Main St., above retail and restaurants on the bottom floor such as Center Stage Bistro, a restaurant run by Theatre Cafe owners Bill Aldridge and Jeanette Harmsen.
“The Igbo language has these very colorful words,” Menkiti said of his Nigerian father’s native language. ” ‘Emengini’ is basically the woman of the house, the matriarch saying ‘Who am I that you exclude me from the conversation?’ Basically, ‘Where’s my seat at the table?’ “
Menkiti drew a connection between the concept of Emengini and Worcester as a city that also demands a seat at the table.
“I think my dad had a real passion for trying to ensure voices and thoughts and ideas of substance weren’t dismissed, that global ideas were all brought to the community table,” he said. “I think in many ways he loved Worcester because Worcester has this amazing, gritty sort of pride and the sense that it deserves a seat at the table.”
CITY AN INSPIRATION
Menkiti Group Vice President of development Mark Rengel has been working on projects in Worcester for the past five years. He said the first time Ifeanyi Menkiti brought him and Bo to Worcester sparked their inspiration in evolving the city.
“He really wanted to establish his lifelong dream of an institute for folks from all walks of life and all different cultures around the world to have discourse about the heated topics of the day, especially those who have been traditionally left out of that conversation,” Rengel said. “That was our impetus to come to Worcester; we followed Bo’s father here and fell in love with the city.”
Menkiti said he didn’t realize the impact his father had on his own philosophies until after his death.
“He had a real commitment to the idea of community. All his scholarly work was on the interplay of the individual and the community and how those two things interacted and worked together,” he said. “I’m much more the practical one, so I’ve been left to implement and bring into the practical world much of his lofty philosophical vision. I’m much more of an entrepreneur.”
Menkiti didn’t start his career in real estate until after years of work in the nonprofit sector. Serving as COO of College Summit, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing the college enrollment rate of low-income students, Menkiti said he saw the impact he could make in low-income communities and realized he could further help those in need through brokerage and reinvesting in communities.
Menkiti said he tried to make an impact in real estate in Washington, D.C., but really began the Menkiti Group after helping his with a struggling building he owned in Worcester.
INVESTING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
After that, Menkiti and his father began investing in Worcester to make a difference in the budding downtown.
“Empowering and supporting homeownership is the other part of this business. That’s how it all started 17 years ago, with me as a real estate agent selling a house and thinking, ‘if I could take the money from sales and reinvest it in the neighborhood I’m in, I could make a difference,'” he said.
Menkiti also serves as CEO and founding partner of Keller Williams Capital Properties, a residential real estate brokerage managed by the Menkiti Group.
Menkiti said part of his group’s goal is refining a model of “equitable and sustainable long term investing that has a long term impact on neighborhoods,” to “perfect and document those effects and approaches so that we can share them with others.” He tends to speak about strengthening urban communities and reshaping low income neighborhoods, avoiding use of the term “gentrification.”
Chatham Lofts are luxury apartments in a part of Worcester where housing may be scarce, but Menkiti said Chatham Lofts may be a way toward “unlocking potential in these communities.”
“The idea is great cities need great neighborhoods, and great neighborhoods need mixed income housing, thriving commercial corridors, and they need vibrant culture,” Menkiti said. “If you think of the Theater District today in Worcester, it has vibrant culture in the Hanover Theatre and the BrickBox Theater, but it does not have real, quality market-rate housing. It’s mostly lower-income housing, which is really different for us.”
Menkiti said the group is often responsible for building affordable housing where residents are being priced out. In this case, he said Worcester’s lack of “boutique market-rate housing” downtown inspired his work in the Theater District.
He said Chatham Lofts — though the 24-unit apartment building may be small compared to the 24-story 6Hundred and 365-unit 145 Front — is an opportunity to introduce a “different type of product,” as unique, distinctive housing highlighting architectural elements, which Menkiti said is lacking in housing downtown.
“Our philosophy as an organization has always been that we want to go to cities that have really strong macroeconomic demographic fundamentals,” he said. “Worcester has that. The population’s growing, there’s a strong job market and there’s a lot of pressure as things spill over from Boston as it becomes really unaffordable, creating some opportunities for Worcester at a macro level.”
With historic buildings specifically, Menkiti said the restoration can be more complex and challenging than developing new buildings, but added that “the greenest building is the reuse of an old building.”
Turning a vision into reality
Rengel, who is an architect by trade, said it’s an “interesting challenge” for him to evaluate the potential for historic and nearly abandoned properties, getting an opportunity to envision what the future of a building could be and making that vision a reality.
“The ability to encourage people to see the Theater District as a place to be, a place to work, a place to recreate, and where they’re comfortable and feel safe and really yearn to get back to after they leave — that’s what we’re targeting,” he said.
The group was so focused on keeping things “hyper-local” they made the decision to sell their property at the Vendome Apartments and give full attention to the Main Street corridor, Rengel said.
Like the historical buildings the group is revitalizing, Worcester also has great bones, Rengel said. His vision involves bringing residential density back downtown after residents left the city for the suburbs, he said.
“After an evening ball game, you’ve got people walking up and down Main Street, parking at the garage next to 554 Main, traversing downtown in a way that wasn’t happening six months ago,” he said. “That changes the dynamic of a neighborhood very quickly, even overnight, and that’s what we dream for downtown Worcester and bringing these buildings back to life — creating opportunities to gather and live in the neighborhoods, and creating a new environment for downtown Worcester.”
Rengel said a challenge with developing luxury properties in Worcester arises from its status as an economically-challenged environment.
“You have construction costs generally on par with Boston, yet the rents you can collect from tenants and residents is about 60% of what you can charge in Boston,” he said. “It’s not viable. People are not willing to pay Boston rents in downtown Worcester — yet. The gap is narrowing. People are seeing Worcester as a viable commuter option and see it as having great quality of life, sports teams, and as an alternative to paying exorbitant rent.”
While some of the buildings the Menkiti Group are developing are beautiful in their historic nature, Rengel said deferred maintenance of the buildings over the past several decades means they require additional investment that a properly maintained building wouldn’t have.
But the city and state can help. City and state programs are in place to help develop these valued buildings, which Rengel said is critical to developing in these areas.
As a businessman, Menkiti said he always believed he was nothing like his father. But as the years pass, he finds himself repeating the mantras of his father and their shared heritage.
“What I’ve realized is I’ve been shaped a lot more than I give credit to by my dad, especially in this idea that community is really important. There’s this African principle: We are because I am, and therefore I am because we are,” he said, paraphrasing Ubuntu philosophy. “It’s this idea that our destinies are all inextricably linked and we have to see our individuality in the lens of being part of a community.”