Downtown Crossing will be getting $3.2 million in improvements, including brightly illuminated street signs, repairs to crumbling sidewalks, and newly paved roads, part of a broader plan to revitalize the long-neglected area.
"It's time for us to go back into the Downtown Crossing area and do some reinvestments there, because things are changing and new businessess keep wanting to come there," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
He will celebrate the changes at a block party Monday at Back Deck Boston on West Street, one of 10 new restaurants that have opened or are planning to open in Downtown Crossing this year.
Business owners, shoppers, and employees who work in Downtown Crossing say new businesses are desperately needed if the faded hub of Boston's commercial life is to once again become a desirable place to spend an afternoon or a night out with friends.
For nearly four years, the area has been marred by a giant crater where the Filene's building once stood. But that, too, may be changing: In February, a developer, Millennium Partners, announced plans to build a 600-foot tower there with apartments, shops, and restaurants.
Over the next four years, city officials say, 1,200 housing units will be built in the area, bringing 3,000 residents to a section of the city that often empties out after dark and that some say is good for little beyond a quick shopping trip.
"To me, you can buy a pair of shoes, or go to McDonald's or Subway," but not much else, said Devin Fields, 25, who works at Cohen's Fashion Optical on Washington Street. "I don't know why people even come here."
He said new businesses would make the area more attractive, but he was skeptical that the changes the city is announcing would make much difference. "I don't think a street lamp is going to bring people to the area," he said.
Others took a more hopeful view.
Seated by a large, open window at the Back Deck restaurant, Margaret Virzi, 24, from Brighton, and Lowell Day, 25, from Watertown, held hands across their table as they waited for their Sunday brunch to arrive.
Virzi said friends have told her they didn't like living in the area, because it didn't feel like a community. But she and Day said they like the new restaurants that have opened on some side streets — and the free parking on Sundays.
"There's definitely potential here," Virzi said. "And it's nice to see the city putting some effort into it."
The city says its improvements are designed to pave the way for a broader renaissance and will be made over the next year. The amenities include LED street signs at a dozen intersections, repaving a mile of roadway, pruning trees, and installing bike racks that spell Boston.
Developers in the area are expected to make $10 million in privately funded improvements over the next several years, including a new entryway for the MBTA station on the corner of Franklin and Washington streets.
Brigid Williams, an architect who has had an office on Winter Street since 1983, said she has been puzzled why a place that gets so much foot traffic — from bankers, teenagers, and tourists — still has so many empty buildings and shops. She said Downtown Crossing should be thriving.
"I wouldn't mind living here if there were a more stable atmosphere," Williams said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.