Downtown Crossing isn’t dead. That fact matters in and of itself, since Boston’s former commercial hub has attracted a mighty stack of obituaries in recent years. Even though it still looks like the place that was drawing comparisons to Fallujah three years ago, the long-suffering district is rebounding. Businesses actually believe in Downtown Crossing again. There’s suddenly confidence in the downtown. Once it returns, the neighborhood’s redevelopment becomes a self-fulfilling event.
It was Michael Flaherty, the former mayoral challenger, who lobbed the Fallujah barb at Downtown Crossing. It wasn’t enough for Flaherty to rip the fact that vacancies and down-market storefronts had overwhelmed the city’s onetime epicenter; he elevated the comparison from a place like Detroit to a bombed-out den of urban warfare. The 2009 mayoral campaign’s fireworks capped years of writing off Downtown Crossing. And, like every other recent discussion of the neighborhood’s shortcomings, the criticism took direct aim at the pit where Filene’s once stood.
The Filene’s pit has been blamed for every ill plaguing the neighborhood since the old department store fell. From dark Washington Street storefronts to slow condominium sales, from low office rents to a bleak development outlook, if it’s awful and it’s happening in Downtown Crossing, it’s been the fault of Filene’s.
The Filene’s pit is a stark place. It spans half a city block. It darkens and deadens one of the city’s busiest corners. The pit still looks the way it did three years ago. But that doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. All around the pit, new buildings are springing up, restaurants are opening, and vacant storefronts are being re-tenanted.
“The atmosphere has really changed,” says Ronald Druker, who owns a number of commercial buildings along Washington Street. “The confidence in the future is palpable. We’re seeing a lot more interest in our space than we were a year ago. People want to get in now, before the new reality sinks in. Because it is going to be a more expensive place to rent in.”
This violent swing in attitudes — from Downtown Crossing as a war-torn apocalyptic landscape, to Downtown Crossing as a place to buy in before the rents take off — turned on the change in developers at the Filene’s site. Millennium Partners’ promise of a 600-unit, 625-foot residential tower rising above the Filene’s site has enabled Boston to feel confident about itself. Freed of the obligation to mourn daily over the grave of Filene’s, developers are now making bets on Downtown Crossing’s classic pre-war architecture, its access to public transportation, and the astounding volume of foot traffic that streams by every day. These are factors that should have been driving investment all along. Now, they finally are.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority will soon announce restaurant leases in four downtown buildings, two of which have sat vacant for more than three years. This year, more than 20 new shops and restaurants will open downtown. It’s not just the volume that matters, but the character: More and more of the new restaurants are moving beyond the lunchtime sandwich crowd, and chasing the thousands of new residents that will stream into the neighborhood over the next few years.
It’s a positive feedback loop: The back side of the Millennium Ritz-Carlton, which had long been a dead spot, now features a bakery and sidewalk cafe; the new restaurants are partially chasing customers from the 15-story residential complex Millennium is now building at Hayward Place; and the Hayward building will spin off even more retail.
The owners of the Lafayette Corporate Center are talking about converting a huge chunk of office space being vacated by State Street Bank into large-scale retail. There’s tremendous symbolism in the move — the building only became an office complex after its first incarnation, as an urban mall, failed. Downtown Crossing now has the power to revive dead malls. Just wait to see what happens when people are actually living above the Filene’s site.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.