Downtown View: Downtown Changing, Good for All

March 28, 2014
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An important part of Boston is in flux—good flux. It will be interesting to see how the details work themselves out.

You have probably known the district as Downtown Crossing ever since it got a little seedy, the Washington Street subway station changed its name, Jordan Marsh became Macy’s, and Filene’s and the basement moved completely out. Although the area has been one of the safest in the city, some people perceived it as menacing, citing the kids who maybe should have been in school instead of hanging out.

Then, of course, came the notorious hole in the ground at Filene’s, and it looked like a sorry mess, even though good things were happening around the edges.

Since the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District came into being in 2010, there’s been a shift, starting with the name. Downtown Crossing is what the busiest T station in the MBTA system is called. Has it now come to mean only the intersection at Winter, Summer and Washington streets? A couple of blocks out from there you’ll encounter the Ladder District, the Theatre District, and the edges of the Financial District, Government Center, and Chinatown—all parts of “downtown.” Maybe in the future, if John Henry makes a move, the old “Newspaper Row” will join the others.

There’s been a shift too in its appeal. In a city like ours, where the land in Boston Proper has long been taken up, and historic districts prevent replacing shorter buildings with taller ones, it was probably natural that housing developers would find their way to a languishing area that abuts the Common. About 6,000 people currently live in the census tract that closely corresponds to the BID, said Doug Meyer, membership services and database manager for the BID. Only a few years ago, that number was in the hundreds.

Emerson and Suffolk have made a difference in the vitality of the area, both bringing in people and fixing up old buildings. Interestingly, the area has attracted a host of tech start-ups put off by the high prices in Kendall Square and the Seaport District, said Meyer.

Both independent and chain restaurants have opened and so have new retail shops. About 20 such new businesses a year have established themselves since 2011. Establishing a BID enabled merchants to get help with cleaning, welcoming people, removing snow, and keeping a watchful eye on the area.

There’s more to come. Roche Bros. is planning to open a grocery store, probably by the end of this year, on two levels in the old Filene’s building. A Chicago real estate investment firm is renovating and plans to open 59 Temple Place, aka 505 Washington Street, as a 238-room Godfrey Hotel in late spring, 2015, said George Jordan, a senior vice president at Oxford Hotels and Resorts. Like the Temple Street building and the old Filene’s, many of the district’s buildings are decorative and, frankly, gorgeous. And the Millennium Tower construction workers are purposefully chugging along with an opening scheduled for 2016. The old Filene’s building will be ready for occupancy by this September, said Anthony Pangaro of Millennium Partners.

Challenges still exist. The new housing is expensive and most buildings, but not all, lack room for families. Lafayette Place, that misguided 1980s project, is due for another tweak, and we hope this is more successful than the last one. A few landlords seem hopeless, leaving buildings vacant and unkempt. The bi-level subway station could be a wonderful shopping mall if it were spiffed up, lit better, and lined with shops. Wouldn’t that be a good investment for the T?

But the area is going in the right direction, which is good news for everyone who lives or works in Boston Proper. It’s within walking distance of all the downtown neighborhoods.

Many people are responsible for the district’s resurgence, but two people come to mind as persevering and persuasive. Rosemarie Sansone has led the Downtown Crossing Partnership as it morphed into the Downtown Boston BID, and John Rattigan of the DLA Piper law firm has been the group’s long-time chairman. I’d have to also give Millennium Partners credit for jumping in with several big, transforming projects when it was not clear what the future might hold.

By this time next year, we’ll see many  more changes in this district. I wonder what they’ll do about the name.