When the new builders behind the Filene’s complex released the contours of their redevelopment plans for the stalled development project in Downtown Crossing, most eyes settled on one figure: the building’s height of 606 feet. In a city that anguishes over height, simply talking about building over 600 feet is enough to cause a stir.
The tower would be among Boston’s tallest buildings. And as rare as it is for developers to puncture Boston’s stodgy skyline, marveling at the size of Millennium Partner’s new tower misses the real significance of what goes inside it. The tower represents a dramatic expansion in residential development over the Vornado Realty Trust plan that stalled out four years ago. Five hundred — the number of new housing units Millennium wants to build — is the number that really matters. The 600-foot tower is just a tool for moving downtown housing policy where it needs to be.
Don’t take the fact that Millennium has yet to be overwhelmed by cries from height-averse neighbors as a sign that a four-year construction drought has given Bostonians more progressive attitudes toward tall buildings. No one is complaining about Millennium’s 600-footer because there aren’t enough people living next to the building site to complain. And that, in itself, is reason enough for City Hall to urge Millennium to go as tall as it can at Filene’s.
The dearth of residents plagued Downtown Crossing for years before Vornado’s team bought the Filene’s block for $100 million in cash, and the absence of a significant residential community is one of the main reasons that the 2008 flameout of Vornado’s redevelopment bid took such a steep toll on the neighborhood.
Filene’s was one of many development projects that collapsed in the fall of 2008. Shuttered redevelopment sites — and, in some cases, holes in the ground — ran from East Boston to Chinatown, South Boston, the Back Bay, Longwood, Allston, and Roxbury. The troubles that plagued Filene’s were far from unique. But no other project in Boston was so closely tied to the city’s uplift as Filene’s was. Once it stalled, the giant pit in the city’s commercial heart exacerbated all the neighborhood’s shortcomings, making the place feel dark and desolate. The desolation already existed, though. It sets in every night, when shops close up and office workers head home. The void where Filene’s used to be just served as a physical manifestation of the neighborhood’s emptiness.
People make neighborhoods, and neighborhoods suffer in the absence of people. That’s rudimentary urbanism, but until now, it’s a dynamic that Downtown Crossing’s most sincere boosters have failed to overcome. In the absence of organic reasons for people to come downtown, the city has fallen back on street vendors, musicians, petting zoos, and other gimmicks. They’ve drawn temporary crowds. But the only way to put bodies on the ground downtown in a self-sustaining manner is by turning the neighborhood into a dynamic residential neighborhood. Once residents come, the critical mass of round-the-clock activity will follow.
Millennium’s plan for Filene’s should prove worth the four years of anguish that preceded it, because Millennium addresses Downtown Crossing’s glaring weaknesses head-on. Vornado’s abortive redevelopment effort never did. Vornado planned to mix residential uses with hotel, office, and retail, but its 163-condominium residential component always felt like an afterthought in a heavily commercial project. Millennium’s 500 condos and apartments drive its tower. Office and retail are along for the ride. And the neighborhood will be better for it.
Between Filene’s and the nearby Hayward Place residences, which are now under construction, Millennium should soon boost Downtown Crossing’s population by 25 percent. Add in new apartment towers slated for the northern half of Chinatown, and there’s a 50 percent downtown population surge in the pipeline. That difference will be measurable. Millennium has already proven that one development, when it’s big and ambitious enough, can turn around a neighborhood. Its Ritz-Carlton towers eradicated Boston’s red light district by putting new residents on Washington Street. Its Filene’s tower should pull the same trick, although not by being conspicuously tall; it’ll be a genuine center of gravity in a neighborhood desperately in need of one.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.