Downtown Crossing was once a major part of the city’s landscape. Since the demolition of the building that housed Filene’s, it has been a black hole.
Is it really on the verge of a comeback?
Millennium Partners - the developers of the Ritz-Carlton, Boston - announced last week that the firm is prepared to place a big bet on the Filene’s site, where construction of a new office, retail, and housing development stalled more than three years ago. Vornado Realty Trust, the project’s New York-based current owner, is to become a passive investor.
The void at the corner of Washington and Franklin streets has been bad for Boston, and not just because the hole itself is so ugly. It underscores the problems of an area that should be far more dynamic than it has ever managed to become.
The area never collapsed, but it has never really taken off, either. Successful new nightspots and restaurants are part of its changing landscape. But so are the empty storefronts that used to be home to Barnes and Noble and Borders.
That has only heightened the current excitement of city officials who have been willing to attempt almost anything to get the Filene’s site moving, including threatening to take it by eminent domain. That was an idle threat, as it turned out, but it reflected the desperation to make something happen downtown.
Now, finally, there’s a plan, and it is ambitious: a 500-foot tower that will be among the tallest in town (and dwarf the neighborhood around it). Phillip Aarons, a founding partner of Millennium, said the challenge of doing something spectacular sparked his company’s interest.
“It will again become the center of downtown,’’ Aarons vowed at a City Hall press conference last week.
That moment must have been sweet for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has agonized over the stalled site. Besides its central location, Downtown Crossing is personal to Menino, who loves its historic architecture and was a regular shopper at Filene’s Basement. As Vornado discovered when its chairman made an ill-fated comment that he would be happy to sit on the property, Menino did not take kindly to treating this as just another project.
Of course, one press conference does not mean much; it will be months before Millennium’s plans are unveiled, and years before a skyscraper is completed. But Millennium’s track record in Boston, where it is also building the Hayward Place development near Chinatown, is reason for optimism. If nothing else, Millennium has a record of working successfully with Menino. For better or worse, that matters.
If Millennium is able to pull off what it says it will do - and which Vornado could never do - it could help push along other long-delayed projects downtown. Marshall’s and H&M were never meant to be the area’s anchors.
Though I have often disagreed with Menino’s strong-arm tactics regarding Vornado (the eminent domain idea was especially silly) the success of this project would be a tribute to Menino’s penchant for pushing for what he wants over a long period of time. Its location also ensures that residents would not stop agitating for something to happen, too.
Menino’s antagonism toward Vornado sometimes seemed to ignore the cold facts of a recession in which development was stalled everywhere. Just ask the good folks of Allston-Brighton, where deep-pocketed Harvard has also been forced to slow down it ambitious development agenda.
But that slowdown always meant less to the city than the Filene’s site. Sure, it is just the abandoned home of a couple of famous department stores. But it is also the center of town, and it is high time Boston got it back.