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Final

PAUL MCMORROW

Old plans won’t work in Boston’s emerging downtown

Matt Rocheleau for Boston.com

The parking garage at Winthrop Square has been closed since April 2013.

Winthrop Square was supposed to be the place where former Boston Mayor Tom Menino built his legacy. In 2006, Menino tried to turn a dilapidated city-owned parking garage in that downtown square into Boston’s tallest building.

But that effort fell apart in 2008, victim of an imploding economy. City officials are now trying to revive the garage redevelopment effort. To succeed there, they’ll need to recognize the city’s new reality.

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The pre-recession vision for the Winthrop Square Garage redevelopment was a 1,000-foot office tower. The city and the site’s would-be developer can’t just dust off their old plans and charge ahead, however. Menino’s real legacy project, the Seaport, simply won’t allow it. In the few years that the Winthrop Square garage has sat idle, the city’s Seaport-driven evolution has rendered the old notion an antique conceit.

If Boston officials want to see the garage site developed anytime soon, they’ll need to embrace a new reality. That means ditching any lingering zenith envy and instead taking cues from the smaller tower now rising above Filene’s.

Steve Belkin is the Boston businessman who proposed the 1,000-foot tower at Winthrop Square. His development designation from the city was never revoked, so he remains first in line to try to build at the parking garage site, which sits a block off Post Office Square.

Yet when development folks talk about Winthrop Square, they don’t begin by talking about Belkin. They talk about Tommy Menino, and Tommy’s Tower.

Tommy’s Tower was an obvious legacy bid. It would have wrested the title of Boston’s tallest building away from the Hancock Tower, which has had that distinction since Kevin White’s days. But after 2008, the economy wouldn’t support any new office towers, let alone one that clocked in at 80 floors.

Downtown has been backfilled by creative office users taking advantage of cheap space.

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And so Belkin’s would-be record-breaking tower became a footnote in the annals of unrealized development dreams. The headliner from that era was the proposed redevelopment of the Filene’s block. Plans called for combining scores of new offices with condominiums, hotel rooms, and shops. That, too, was a project for a downtown that no longer existed; it stalled because of that incongruity.

Downtown Boston is no longer a hub for department stores and financial firms. Accountants, fund managers, and lawyers were heading for Boston’s waterfront before the 2008 collapse, and their exodus has only accelerated since. There are few takers left for the expensive downtown offices that Belkin and the old Filene’s developers, Vornado Realty Trust, were hawking. Instead, the downtown has been backfilled by creative office users — tech firms, architects, and the like — taking advantage of cheap space. The downtown is also filling up with residents, from Suffolk and Emerson University students to the wealthy condo owners at Millennium Partners’ Ritz-Carlton towers and its new Theater District mid-rise condo complex.

When Millennium took over the stalled Filene’s project, it recognized that the old plans were an anachronism and moved to meet downtown’s new reality. Millennium plugged a grocery store and an ad agency into the old Filene’s department store; they’re filling out the block with a 625-foot condo building.

Millennium’s tower will be the new face of Boston’s downtown. And in that light, Belkin and Menino’s 1,000-foot office-tower dream now looks like the last gasp of Boston’s old Financial District. After all, businesses aren’t paying premiums for vanity office space downtown anymore. That action is in the Seaport and along the Greenway, and it probably won’t return to the downtown core until all the development sites along the harbor are gone.

Thus the city and Belkin have two choices at Winthrop Square: settle in for a long wait or shift gears and embrace the downtown’s new, residential future.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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