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Michelle Wu and business leaders turn their focus to reviving downtown

After two years of the pandemic, City Hall hopes to launch a “Return to Downtown” campaign this spring

City officials are considering tax and rent breaks to help fill vacant downtown storefronts and want to simplify the conversion of empty office space into housing to help Boston's still-moribund downtown recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Financial incentives to fill empty retail spaces. More arts and culture. Reopening City Hall Plaza. A marketing campaign, and even a “return to downtown” day to kick it off.

Those are some of the ideas to revive moribund downtown Boston that the Wu administration shared with business leaders this week at City Hall. It was the second such meeting since Mayor Michelle Wu was elected. This time, city officials came armed with a presentation of what they’re considering next.

The primary goal: to accelerate the recovery of a district that’s been suffering ever since the COVID-19 pandemic sent office workers home two years ago. Many stores and restaurants closed for good, while others are struggling.

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It won’t be easy to restore downtown to its former vibrancy. There’s disagreement among business leaders about the role employers should play, for example, and whether the mayor should urge companies to bring their office workers back.

With the Omicron variant subsiding and warmer weather coming, many employers already announced return-to-office dates for March or April. Foot traffic tracked by the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District is on an upswing. But most local companies are adopting a hybrid approach, which means many employees could keep working at home a few days each week, and Boston continues to trail most major metro areas in terms of the percentage of workers who are back in their offices.

“Why is Boston so far behind, and what can we do to change that?” said Tamara Small, chief executive of development trade group NAIOP Massachusetts. “It’s not an easy one to figure out, but it does require the public and private sectors to work together.”

Segun Idowu, who leads Wu’s office of economic opportunity and inclusion, said the mayor does not want to take a top-down approach. Instead, she wants buy-in from the various constituencies in the downtown. He said city officials hope to eventually elevate foot traffic beyond pre-pandemic levels.

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“This is a top priority for Mayor Wu,” Idowu said. “She’s pretty much activated her entire cabinet to focus on this issue. [But] this is not the city mandating what’s going to happen. We have to work with all of our partners to make it a vibrant place.”

City officials break down solving the downtown dilemma into five components: making better use of first-floor lobbies and retail spaces, simplifying the conversion of office space to housing or other uses, reimagining streetscapes and other public spaces with arts and culture, activating a newly renovated City Hall Plaza, and tying everything together with a PR campaign emphasizing reasons why people should come downtown.

Idowu said the administration is still fleshing out the exact steps it will take. Examples might include tax credits or rent rebates for shops owned by people of color, or expedited permitting for office landlords looking to build apartments. Some ideas might be tested in pilot programs. City officials don’t have a specific budget yet, but they could tap a portion of Boston’s roughly $350 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that remain unallocated.

Pam Messenger, chairwoman of the downtown improvement district’s board, said she left Wednesday’s meeting encouraged that city officials want to cut the red tape for building conversions.

“I think a lot of building owners that are looking at excess office capacity would love to think about residential,” she said. “It’s just been way too hard.”

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Then there’s the long-awaited reopening of City Hall Plaza, slated for mid-June. City operations chief Dion Irish said the changes include a new playground and a segmentation of the roughly eight-acre plaza that allows several events to happen at once. The redesign includes a new pavilion-style building, separate from City Hall, that could host 60 to 200 people inside and 100 to 200 people on its roof deck.

Among the next steps on the Wu administration’s to-do list: a “return to downtown” day this spring, to kick off the campaign. The message, according to Idowu, is that “there’s lots here to do, and lots you’re missing out on if you’re not here.”

Messenger said the effort could attract tourists, convention organizers, or maybe an employer or two considering a move or expansion. But she said it could be tougher to draw office workers who have developed new habits and routines during two years of working remotely.

Some business leaders argue employers should do more to bring workers back to the office, especially considering the city budget’s heavy reliance on the commercial property tax base.

“It’s really important that businesses commit to making sure employees are in town at least part of the week and supporting these [downtown] businesses,” said Small, whose group includes many of Boston’s largest landlords. “This is truly a critical time for the city.”

But Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said many bosses are reluctant to force workers to commute again.

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“They’re worried if they require people to come back, they’re going to lose people, and in this job market, they can’t afford to lose people,” Rooney said. “The target has to be the employees, not the employers.”

Toward that end, Rooney said Wu should push the MBTA to restore train and bus service to 2019 levels. Rather than waiting for commuters to come back before restoring service, he said, the T should instead restore service to bring the riders back.

City officials, Rooney said, should also try to make downtown more of a social magnet.

The successful opening this month of the High Street Place food hall in the lobby between the 160 Federal St. and 100 High St. towers — a project started well before the pandemic — came up as a model for repurposing first-floor spaces. Kevin Phelan, co-chair of the Boston office of brokerage firm Colliers International, works upstairs and noticed that the place was packed one afternoon; there was even a line to get in on a Saturday night, when the Financial District is typically a ghost town.

“The city needs more of those venues that encourage young people ... to come in and to mix and mingle,” Phelan said.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.