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Hancock Tower seeking high-tech tenants

If the John Hancock Tower were an article of clothing, it would be a classic three-piece suit, the armor of choice for an insurance executive or a private equity titan.

But now the tower’s owner wants a new look, at least for its lower floors. Boston Properties is trying to reinvent the low-rise portion of this 1970s-era icon, with a fashion makeover geared at drawing young hipsters through the doors.

Boston properties has been pitching space on four of the lower levels that State Street Corp. left last year by promising a separate entrance and lobby with a fresher vibe and wide floors with a completely different look from the building’s sky-high offices. The potential tenant could even end up with its name on the door.

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The insurer John Hancock has long since moved its headquarters from its namesake tower to the South Boston Waterfront. Hancock has been replaced by the likes of Bain Capital and Ernst & Young. Now, Boston Properties wants to attract a different type of tenant, one whose workforce skews younger and more urban. Think tech giants like Microsoft or media firms like DigitasLBi.

“You would walk in and it wouldn’t feel like the same building,” said Ben Heller, director of the brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle’s downtown Boston team. “That low-rise, it has great big floorplates, with not a lot of columns. It has an amazing window line overlooking Copley park and Trinity Church, and has the ability to have its own entranceway.”

So what exactly is Boston Properties doing behind the Hancock’s mirrored facade? The company declined to comment and has shared only snippets with investors during quarterly conference calls. President Douglas Linde has said the roughly 170,000-square-foot block of space at the base of the Hancock will be rebranded as “120 St. James” with a separate lobby and entrance, larger levels, and floor-to-ceiling glass.

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The image change speaks less about demand for space in the Hancock Tower — the 60-story cathedral of finance remains one of the hottest office properties in the Back Bay — and more about a shift taking place throughout the city’s traditional skyscrapers.

Greater Boston’s tech community is booming. But many of that sector’s signature firms are getting priced out of Kendall Square in Cambridge. At the same time, others are willing to pay a premium to move from the suburbs to the city to attract young workers. They are actively touring Boston’s office towers, and Boston Properties wants to capitalize on that interest.

The tower’s low-rise section’s facelift will include a separate entrance and lobby with a fresher vibe and wide floors with a completely different look from the building’s sky-high offices.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It is a trend that is playing out, in particular, on the lower floors of the city’s skyscrapers, places that were once teeming with call-center drones and other back-office worker bees, toiling for the masters of the universe who held forth amid the clouds above.

Without the towering views, these podium spaces were typically less in demand. But that has changed in the past few years, as a crowded field of tech firms chase deals in the Back Bay and the financial district, firms with no interest in the 60th floor.

David Martel, executive director at the brokerage Cushman & Wakefield’s Boston office, said these types of tenants want bigger, more efficient floor plans and the perception of coolness. The cheaper rents on the bottom stories don’t hurt, either.

“Frankly, the tech guys, where most of the demand in the market is, are not necessarily looking to go into a building that’s very corporate feeling,” Martel said.

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Brokers can rattle off a number of tech firms that have infiltrated the financial district, companies like PayPal, Carbonite, and Brightcove. In Brightcove’s case, the video-tech firm moved from Cambridge to Boston Properties’ Atlantic Wharf tower, now four years old and primarily known as the headquarters for the investment giant Wellington Management.

“Boston Properties saw what happened there, and I think a light went off in their heads,” Martel said of the Brightcove move. “They were seeing a changing dynamic where these technology firms didn’t really care as much about the views. They liked the value, good clear [ceiling] heights, and efficiency.”

At the Hancock Tower, Boston Properties will not need to chisel out a new way into its 1.7-million-square-foot building: The landlord plans to use the entrance that once brought the public to the old observation deck, a popular tourist attraction that John Hancock shuttered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Ideally, Boston Properties would need only one company to fill the low-rise space, one that could get a branding opportunity at the street level. But multiple, smaller tenants are also being entertained.

Brokers said tenants would probably pay in the mid-$50s per square foot: That would be an increase from what State Street paid but still the bargain basement compared to the Hancock’s upper floors, which rise into the stratosphere of $80 per square foot.

Tim Love, president of the Boston Society of Architects, said the biggest draw for tech tenants would be low rents, not the promise of a separate entrance or a hip lobby. “I think it would be better if they went in the same door as everyone else,” said Love, a principal at Utile Inc. “It’s weird to me to segregate ‘innovators’ from the rest of humanity.”

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Given the tower’s iconic status as New England’s tallest skyscraper, people will be watching how the transformation unfolds.

“It might be a smart real estate play for the building owners; they can get some hipster branding cred,” Love said. “But I don’t know a cooler building than the Hancock building.”


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