After welcoming people back downtown with a block party in April, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration hopes to attract many more office workers by enlivening public spaces with music, movies, and exercise classes throughout the summer and fall.
The administration is planning to announce the effort, dubbed “Boston Together Again,” on Thursday after awarding a $300,000 contract, from federal pandemic recovery funds, to local event planner Rosemark Production to run the show. A variety of free events will be held on weekdays through mid-October in Downtown Crossing, Copley Square, Dewey Square, Post Office Square, and City Hall Plaza.
“There’s the belief that there’s not much going on downtown,” said Segun Idowu, Wu’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion. “The purpose of this contract is to show quite the opposite.”
The initiative, which will start on July 19, is just one of several the administration is undertaking to help downtown Boston recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shift to remote work — a shift that has clobbered small businesses that once relied on office employees’ foot traffic to survive.
In May, the administration engaged Boston Consulting Group on a pro bono basis to analyze urban recovery strategies to better prepare the city’s economy for the pandemic’s aftermath. City officials have also pledged to streamline the process for converting office buildings to residential use, and to help bring unique, local retailers to empty storefronts.
“The idea was always to have a signature event opening downtown [but] that it would not be the end,” Idowu said. “We would then focus on a sustained effort to show folks that there is stuff going on, to create a sense of FOMO — here’s what you’re missing out on by not being in the office, by not being downtown to support the small businesses here.”
The latest statistics show some signs of recovery, but also indicate that Boston still has a ways to go, and raise the question of whether the city’s downtown will ever return to its pre-pandemic bustle. Data provided by the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District show pedestrian traffic at about two-thirds of 2019 levels. And real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts reports an estimated average return of about 40 percent of office workers in Boston and Cambridge.
“I’m still bullish on it, I always will be,” said Pam Messenger, who chairs the business improvement district board and is president of Friends of Post Office Square. “I still think we have a lot of work to do.”
Rose Staram, who is Black and owns Dorchester-based Rosemark, is happy to play her part. Staram was awarded the job through a new effort by the Wu administration known as the sheltered market program, which sets aside key city contracts for small businesses owned by women or people of color.
“I want people to come back downtown,” Staram said. “To think I can play a small role in that is very fulfilling.”
Messenger said she’s happy with the outreach she is seeing from City Hall. Among other things, city officials are discussing a possible rent subsidy program to spur more independent shops and restaurants to open.
“This is all about making unique experiences that you can’t get from going to a suburban shopping center,” Messenger said. “I can’t see the scenario where everybody just packs up and leaves urban areas.”
But what she wants to see most from City Hall is more pressure on the MBTA to step up its game. The transit agency, which generally pared back service during the early weeks of the pandemic, has recently endured a wave of high-profile disruptions and last week reduced weekday frequency on the Red, Orange and Blue lines because of a dispatcher shortage.
“What can we do to get to look like a world-class urban area, when it comes to public transit?” Messenger said. “That’s probably the biggest public policy thing right now, about people coming back. ... We have to build the T to full capacity, even before the riders are there.”