In 2019, Ted Furst made a big bet on downtown Boston. Not only did he buy the popular Sip Café at Post Office Square but invested in it, adding beer and wine and an outdoor patio.
We all know what happened next: COVID-19 hit. Downtown emptied. And now the hybrid workplace, prolonged by the spread of the Delta variant, threatens to keep the pre-pandemic throngs of office workers at home for the foreseeable future.
Despite widespread vaccinations and people yearning for normalcy, Furst said his business remains down by about 80 percent compared to before COVID. Government has been focused on giving small businesses loans and grants to keep them afloat, but to Furst and others whose livelihoods depend on foot traffic, what Boston needs now is a mayor who’ll use her bully pulpit to send a simple message about the commercial heart of the city.
“ ‘It’s safe to come back,’ ” Furst says he wants to hear from City Hall. “ ‘It’s good to come back.’ ”
Every new mayor vows to focus on lifting up the neighborhoods where the voters live. That remains important, especially in the Black and brown communities hurt disproportionately by the virus. But downtown Boston also needs soon-to-be Mayor Michelle Wu’s attention as the once-in-a-century pandemic continues to upend its raison d’être. Sure, the city has survived for centuries, but that has included sharp, painful declines. Memories can be short: Downtown Boston languished during the 1970s and 1980s, certainly when compared to the booming prosperity of more recent times.
A vital downtown matters because it’s about winning the war on talent and making sure Boston remains a top-tier city that draws the best and brightest, just as it did before the coronavirus. Wu can and must play a pivotal role as Boston’s chief champion by urging major employers to get more workers back into the office. The future of downtown depends on it.
For those of us still working from home — a cohort that includes most of the Globe staff — and wondering if a mass return is a responsible message, I turned to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. Her response was unequivocal: “It’s safe to work in person with other people, particularly in this post-vaccination era.”
Dr. Doron herself, along with many of her fellow physicians, has been working in-person throughout the pandemic, adhering to COVID safety protocols from wearing masks to sanitizing common areas.
“Not only do I think that it’s OK for people to work in an office together, but I think there’s no replacement for that in-person work and engagement,” said Dr. Doron, who advises employers on returning to the office. “We’re just accustomed to Zoom, and you can sort of start to think that it is equivalent.”
Still, even if more office workers return, the mayor needs to acknowledge that it’s unlikely companies will revert back to a 9-to-5, five days-a-week schedule, and that could dramatically change parts of the city that rely on office-worker foot traffic.
“We have to come to terms with that. There has been a shift,” said Gregory Minott, managing principal of D/R/E/A/M Collaborative, a Boston architecture firm. “It changes the role of the downtown as the primary place for work.”
Wu is clear-eyed about the challenges facing downtown Boston and what’s at stake.
“Our economy is forever changed by the pandemic, and we continue to see the foot traffic downtown is nowhere near where it has been pre-pandemic,” she said in an interview Thursday. “That has huge impacts on the feeling of community in our city, but also on the economic vitality of so many of our businesses and jobs that rely on tourism and foot traffic.”
Wu said she has been talking to employers about returning to the office and their primary hesitation is not one of public health but rather adjusting to new employee expectations about work flexibility. Amid the shuttered Starbucks and empty office buildings, she sees an opportunity to reimagine downtown and help fulfill her agenda to create a more equitable city, one with more child-care centers, businesses owned by Black and brown entrepreneurs, housing, and arts and culture.
“When we think about downtown and the vacancies that are there, that shouldn’t just be a red flag that we need to quickly be getting businesses back into offices,” she said. “This is a chance to really reset and step into the opportunity to connect all of Boston into the new economy that we’re building.”
All of which raises the question: if downtown, in particular the Financial District, is no longer all about work, then what is it about?
There are no shortage of ideas. Some excess office space could perhaps become housing, which can bring more morning-and-evening life to the Financial District, much the way thousands of new residents have enlivened Downtown Crossing over the past decade. Just outside Post Office Square, for example, stand blocks of low-slung, turn-of-the-century brick buildings that could be renovated into rental apartments and condos.
Wu is right to want to fill vacancies with tenants that can add vibrancy and diversity to a streetscape. But that’s unlikely to happen on its own. As mayor she has the power to encourage landlords, perhaps with rent subsidies, to bring in artists, entertainment, and nightlife instead of banks, drug stores, and ubiquitous chain stores.
Furst, the owner of Sip Café and an urban planner by training, ultimately wants the Financial District to become more of a neighborhood, where people not only want to live and work but hang out.
“We fell off a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff is all this opportunity,” said Furst. “We can be a cool Financial District.”
More than ever, the city will need to think about how to create more open space and offer people experiences they can’t get in the suburbs or working at home alone. Coming downtown can’t just be about sitting in a cubicle, but about collaboration and creating a place people want to be.
There are few developers who have more riding on a thriving urban center than MP Boston (formerly Millennium Partners). It built the 60-story Millennium Tower that has helped transform Downtown Crossing, and now has underway Winthrop Center, an office-and-residential skyscraper on Devonshire Street that’s slated to open in 2023.
Just outside its tower, MP Boston built The Steps, a public space for performances — or for just sitting and watching the city walk by — and is turning an experimental pocket park known as the Tontine Crescent into a permanent spot where people can sit and gather.
Even pop-up efforts can help, said Joe Larkin, principal at MP Boston. He points to one recent program — Suffolk University’s theatre department staging a free outdoor performance of Shakespearean drama “Cymbeline” — as an example of something unique that gets people to hang out and spend money at restaurants and shops.
“There was really good energy and civic pride,” said Larkin. “The thing about downtown, people want to love it.”
Boston is in better position than most cities to bounce back from the COVID swoon because it remains an epicenter for health care and life sciences, industries where many people still must work in person. Similarly, higher education institutions, including Emerson College and Suffolk University, both of which are in downtown Boston, have brought back students en masse, prioritizing in-person learning over online classes. But for other sectors, the rise of remote work may mean fewer workers and fewer headquarters decide to be in an expensive city like Boston.
That could pose a challenge to a progressive mayor like Wu who will need someone to pay for her ambitious agenda.
“It almost replays the 1970s,” said Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, whose latest book “Survival of the City” with colleague David Cutler, examines the future of urban centers post pandemic.
Back then, Glaeser notes, there was a progressive desire, much like now, to address the inequities of cities, just as taxpaying businesses and people were leaving behind urban centers for the suburbs. Today, remote work and the Age of Zoom pose a similar threat to the relevance of downtown.
“This is not a moment to double down on penalizing our businesses,” said Glaeser, who taught Wu when she was a student at Harvard. “Rather we actively have to recognize we’ve got to fight for talent, we’ve got to fight for entrepreneurs, just as we did at the start of the Menino era. As long as we recognize that need, I am fundamentally optimistic, but we must focus on this.”
In other words, the future of downtown Boston can’t be left to chance.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.