The COVID-19 shutdown of March 2020 was the darkest time in Charlie Jacobs’ professional career.
Just a few weeks prior, Jacobs — the CEO of Delaware North Boston — had celebrated the grand opening of the first two phases of The Hub on Causeway, a $2 billion mixed-use project around TD Garden that was more than two decades in the making. The project was expansive: an upgraded and expanded arena, an underground pedestrian tunnel to North Station, a hotel and movie theater, downtown Boston’s largest grocery store, a live music venue.
Most of the massive project relied on in-person gatherings. The Celtics and Bruins, both of which call TD Garden home, both had seasons in full swing and were cruising to the playoffs.
Then came the coronavirus. What became the deadliest pandemic in US history prompted the NBA to suspend its season on March 11, 2020; a day later, the NHL followed suit.
“It hit everybody, I would say, shockingly fast,” Jacobs said. “Everybody’s got their own horror stories, right? Ours, given the industries that we are in at Delaware North, specifically here at TD Garden, are about people getting together.”
Delaware North eventually laid off thousands as traffic to its properties plummeted. The restaurants went dark during monthslong shutdowns. The 15-screen ArcLight Cinema never re-opened, and its Los Angeles-based parent company eventually filed for bankruptcy.
The theater was the only retail tenant that failed at The Hub on Causeway. Delaware North worked on rent relief for the local retailers who had signed on to operate at the food hall before COVID-19.
“We wanted to make sure they survived,” said Chris Maher, vice president of development at Delaware North.
Delaware North has stayed in good standing with its own lenders, but did have to ask for temporary waivers for some contracts.
How were those conversations? “Brutal,” Jacobs says.
“You know, your friends who lend you money, tend to, you know — they want it back,” Jacobs said. “When you’re in the foxhole, you find out really, who’s your friend.”
The last year, though, has been a night-and-day difference. Venues around the Garden hit record numbers during the Celtics’ Finals run. So did sales of tickets and box office revenue. The Celtics and Bruins ProShop, Banners Kitchen & Tap, and Hub Hall — which opened last September — all did well. There are now 2,300 part-time and 300 full-time employees between TD Garden, the Bruins, and Delaware North Sportservice — figures that are in line with pre-pandemic staffing.
For Jacobs, it’s both a validation of the investment and effort that went into The Hub on Causeway, and a catalyst for more — more activity on the streets, more shoppers and patrons, more office workers coming in to the newly built tower that now pops on Boston’s northern skyline.
“How do we get people to come back?” he said. “And what are we doing to entice them to show up to work and be present, and want to be here?”
That’s a key question for the project’s third phase: A 31-story office tower that recently opened at the Hub on Causeway, home to Verizon and Rapid7 and offices for the Bruins and Celtics.
Both teams are offering a hybrid schedule for their corporate employees — some days in the office, some days at home. The Bruins have replicas from their six Stanley Cup wins up in their offices, all in front of a wall of several thousand hockey pucks. There’s also a bear in a Bruins jersey around the corner from a working air-hockey table.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have replicas of their 17 championship banners hanging. The staff for the Celtics, Bruins, and TD Garden share an elevator at the office tower, which adds to a sense of community, said Rich Gotham, the Celtics president.
“The space is beautiful,” he said. “It’s just a great place to come to work every day. It’s given us a new energy that just keeps propelling us forward.”
And the area outside keeps transforming with Newton-based The RMR Group floating the idea of a 700-foot office and hotel tower at 251 Causeway St. nearby. And Delaware North is also in conversations with the city about redesigning Canal Street to be something like “a Jersey Street 2.0,” Jacobs said, referencing the street outside Fenway Park that closes to vehicles on game days. Talks are in early stages, but closing Canal Street to vehicle traffic would initially be centered around games and events at TD Garden, said Jay Walsh, executive director of the Downtown North Association, who has been involved in the conversations.
The hits have kept coming too, though. Several Garden-adjacent bars that closed that same week in March 2020 never re-opened. And last week, the MBTA said it will shut down the entire Orange Line and the Green Line through North Station for 30 days starting later this month, cutting a key transportation pipeline for a number of September events and for those commuting to the offices. But the team at TD Garden has handled difficulties before.
Walsh, who started at the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services in 1999, remembers discussions about developing the area around TD Garden and North Station from those City Hall days. The old Garden was still freshly torn down, with a newly built TD Garden a stone’s throw away. A few years later, in 2004, the last elevated train came into North Station, and before long, the tracks came down, and sunlight shone on Causeway Street for the first time in decades.
“It was something that was so long anticipated,” Walsh said. “A lot of folks come here to be entertained, and to get away from the struggles of their own daily lives. … It’s an opportunity to escape, and I think people look forward to that greatly.”
For Walsh, taking down the Central Artery and the elevated T was “the beginning of the transformation of the community.” Now it’s a more 24/7 hub instead of a Garden-centric one, where thousands would flock on game or concert days but be relatively quiet outside of those events, Walsh said.
Jacobs, too, sees this as the end result of a transformation that’s been decades in the making. On a recent tour of The Hub, Jacobs walked across Causeway Street, a series of old photos in his hand. One showed the previous Boston Garden and the elevated T line; the next, the Garden as it opened in 1995 — a standalone box next to a federal building. Today, the view is entirely changed.
“We’re finally here,” Jacobs said. “Almost $2 billion later, a $200 million renovation to the Garden … it’s kind of like, pinch myself.”