Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston is hoping the draw of live music and street art, food trucks and free Dunkin’ coffee, lawn games, and an evening beer garden will bring workers out of rectangular Zoom boxes and downtown in real life this Wednesday, and gradually back for good.
City leaders say this week’s Boston Blooms Block Party — the first of what Wu says will be regular Wednesday activities — will celebrate Boston’s reopening, as more office workers begin coming back to town. And they hope it will add a jolt of renewed energy, vigor, and foot traffic to downtown’s small businesses — foot traffic that plunged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So much struggle and hardship has happened through the pandemic. It’s been difficult on each and every one of our families. It’s been life-changing for our small businesses. And we’re still seeing the impacts as people are looking to make ends meet and put the pieces back together,” Wu said at a news conference Monday at Washington and Summer streets in Downtown Crossing. “We’ve lost out on the sense of community, of what it means to live in a bustling, vibrant, diverse, and exciting city, where you can run into something unexpected.”
Both the Downtown Boston and Greenway Business Improvement Districts, along with the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, are partnering with the city for the party, hosting musical acts and other performances — with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department pitching in for plant giveaways.
Foot traffic has “visibly increased” downtown, with daily office occupancy rates hovering between 30 to 35 percent, according to a recent report from CBRE. But Wu said she knows one block party won’t be enough to bring vitality back to the city’s urban core. As part of a proposed budget, to be presented to the City Council on Wednesday, she’s planning a number of investments aimed at supporting small businesses and the city long after Wednesday’s event.
They include $34 million toward economic opportunity and inclusion, aiming to grow businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, expand the city’s commercial rental rebates program, and invest in both tuition-free community college and workforce training; an additional $31 million toward climate resiliency, including creating walking and biking infrastructure; and $20 million for arts and culture. Wu said the arts and culture funding represents “unprecedented investment in our city’s organizations and artists to facilitate placemaking, such as we’ll see here on Wednesday, and strengthen our communities at the neighborhood level and citywide.”
Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, described a five-prong strategy to get people back downtown. One piece under discussion: Making it easier to convert empty offices or storefronts into affordable housing. Another is creating more opportunities for child care for workers returning to the office.
Idowu said the city met with some commercial landlords last month, and is working with the Planning and Development Agency on how a residential conversion program might work.
Another goal would be to fill vacancies seen around Downtown Crossing, with “a focus on bringing more minority- and women-owned businesses to this downtown area, reflecting all the diversity that we see come through here every single day,” Idowu said.
Wednesday’s festivities start at 7:30 a.m. and last through 8:00 p.m.