Two weeks before Christmas, Mayor Michelle Wu convened leaders of the downtown Boston business community on short notice. Roughly 30 people filed into the Eagle Room in City Hall for an hourlong meeting to confront a weighty question for everyone in attendance.
What can city officials do to bring people back downtown?
Then Omicron hit. Wu put the issue on hold. But the question is resurfacing now that we’re on the back side of the COVID-19 surge that chased so many people home over the winter.
Foot traffic in Downtown Crossing remains roughly one-third of what it was in the winter before the pandemic, according to the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. The number of people actually going into the office is down even more, roughly one-seventh of what it was in the Before Times, based on information from building security firm Kastle Systems. That puts Boston behind each of the 10 major cities where Kastle tracks key-card swipes. Ameet Amin, Kastle’s Northeast general manager, suspects Boston’s reliance on public transit and the winter weather are among the main reasons.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been downtown on a weekday lately and seen the near-empty sidewalks and darkened storefronts. The warmer weather and improved COVID numbers will bring people back. But many of the business leaders whose companies make downtown hum don’t think the new mayor should sit idly by while the heart of the city remains in such tenuous health.
Wu recognizes the challenge. She sees it every day. And she appears ready to resume the conversation now that City Hall’s workforce has essentially returned in full, as of Monday, and city officials edge closer to lifting Boston’s proof-of-vaccination mandate for restaurants, gyms, and event venues.
Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said he plans to reconvene the folks who were in that Eagle Room meeting, in early March, to offer some solutions and hash out more ideas.
He wants to ensure more voices are heard beyond those who were at the table in December. He said the mayor wants to balance downtown’s needs with those of the neighborhoods: Solutions put forward for the core business district shouldn’t come at the expense of Roslindale or Roxbury.
His department is still in brainstorming mode now. Possible ideas include a rental rebate program, more small-business relief funds, and what would amount to a PR campaign to show people the experiences they’re missing while they’re at home, staring at colleagues on Zoom. As spring arrives, city officials will look at fostering outdoor workplaces in pocket parks, and eventually bringing large-scale gatherings again to City Hall Plaza once construction there ends this summer. Longer term, Idowu said he wants to help landlords seriously consider new uses, such as child care and events, for the large empty lobbies that occupy the ground floors of the district’s skyscrapers.
The private sector, of course, has its own ideas — though no one will argue if Wu becomes downtown’s biggest cheerleader. Everyone has a suggestion or two: free meter parking on Saturdays, a Greenway concert series, or maybe a road race.
Jim Rooney, chief executive at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, suggests dipping into Boston’s pot of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars — the city still has roughly $350 million to allocate — to subsidize first-floor rents for retail and restaurant tenants; maybe Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses, he said, could be given preferential treatment. And Pam Messenger, who chairs the downtown business improvement district’s board, suggests something as simple as a break on liquor license renewal fees could go a long way.
One idea that often comes up: turning some office space into apartments or condos, to bring more foot traffic and create much-needed housing. The Financial District’s zoning allows it, but would it be economically feasible? Converting office towers to residential use can be tough, particularly those with larger floor plates. A few smaller-scale conversions have succeeded — such as the apartments on the top floors of a Verizon switching building in Chinatown, or in the old Conrad and Chandler’s store next to the Orpheum.
Maybe the Wu administration can help similar projects along with Community Preservation Act money, or other city-controlled affordable housing funds. Bringing in more residents could prove crucial for downtown’s vibrancy if — as many predict — remote work persists long after the pandemic ends.
It’s that broader societal shift in how we use our offices that could pose the biggest challenge to downtown Boston’s future, and the shops and cafes that rely on weekday commuters. Sure, many companies will still mandate that employees schlep in a few days each week. But many more will give their workers a choice. Amid the hunt for talent, workers have the upper hand today, and many like the convenience of working from home. Bosses who don’t want mandates but do want busy workspaces might sweeten the pot a bit, by paying for commuting costs, for example, or subsidizing meals in downtown restaurants.
So what role can Wu play in all of this?
Aside from various policy moves, the mayor can set the tone for the city. She can jawbone office employers to reopen, and tout the benefits of returning downtown. The Omicron surge may have justifiably prompted Wu to table this discussion. But for many of those people who joined her in December, it’s time to swing into action.