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Shirley Leung

With new openings, Downtown Crossing to take on European flair

The women’s department at the Primark store in Dusseldorf, Germany.Primark

Perhaps you have to be European to truly understand why Primark, one of the hottest retailers on the other side of the Atlantic, wants to be in Downtown Crossing.

American companies see the gritty streets, a construction zone, and a Financial District next door that empties out at 5 p.m. The take-away: Let’s play it safe in a suburban mall.

Europeans see the busiest district in the city, with more than 50,000 daily pedestrians, a place where multiple subway lines cross. It is, in many ways, a home away from home for them, a “high street” shopping experience they so crave to be a part of.


But it is about more than that. European retailers buy into a vision of Downtown Crossing that can be hard for us to see amid all the construction dust. They get how $4 billion in public and private investments over the past decade is turning this ugly duckling of Boston shopping into a swan.

“The regeneration of the area is really exciting,” said John Bason, finance director of Associated British Foods, the London conglomerate that owns Primark.

Last week Primark — to the surprise of many — said it will be moving into the historic Burnham building, the former home of Filene’s, taking up four floors to open a flagship store, its first in the United States. Investors were giddy about the news, sending shares of Associated British Foods up 9 percent that day.

“Our model is being in a location where people are going,” Bason said in a phone interview. “This seems like the perfect location.”

Primark executives, including Bason, started scouting sites in Massachusetts well over a year ago. They visited the Burnham building many times, and took a hard hat tour. What they saw was a space designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham, one that even a century later could entice shoppers with its expansive windows and open floors.


About 30 to 40 retailers, mostly apparel stores, considered the space, said Joseph Larkin, a principal at Millennium Partners, which is redeveloping the Burnham building and erecting a 60-story tower next door.

Last fall, Millennium executives sensed Primark was getting serious, but they knew little about their potential retail anchor tenant. While all the rage in Europe, most Americans have never heard of Primark. I know a bunch of you — myself included — had to Google it. And then when you looked it up, it hardly made any sense: a fashionable Irish brand, owned by a British giant, with prices so low they make H&M look expensive?

Larkin and other Millennium executives had to see this for themselves. So they made several trips to London to check out Primark stores, which now number more than 270 spread across nine European countries. What they found was indeed true: a fast-fashion retailer packed with shoppers in a pulsating store experience with good music and video billboards. They felt the energy and loved it.

Primark will take up 112,000 square feet in all and create more than 500 store jobs. The company is also leasing some office space to house administrative staff, which could eventually turn into the US headquarters.

The Burnham building is just about fully leased, close to two years ahead of schedule. Advertising heavyweight Arnold Worldwide will occupy the top floors of the building in the fall, while supermarket Roche Brothers will take over the basement. Primark opens in late 2015.


Primark hasn’t been the only European brand to discover Downtown Crossing. A trio of cafe chains — Pret a Manger (British), Caffe Nero (British), and Paul (French) — will be opening over the next few months.

For Paul, a 125-year-old family patisserie with 600 bakeries, the Boston location — 6,000 square feet on Washington Street — will be its biggest in the world, and one that reminds them of London, where all three compete against each other.

“I’m glad we can create a European hub and have a taste of Europe,” said Laetitia Steinier, marketing director of Paul USA. “Instead of crossing the Atlantic, you can cross the street and you can have the French on one side and the UK on the other. There is no fight, I promise. We are very happy to be together.”

The Europeans are back, and this time we don’t mind if they take over.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.