For all the disappointment, angst, and hope wrapped up in the crater where the old Filene’s department store once stood, the former Filene’s site is an imperfect metaphor for Downtown Crossing’s long-running struggles. The Filene’s pit only became the manifestation of neighborhood blight a few years ago. The old Lafayette Place mall, which looms over Washington Street, two blocks down from Filene’s, has been a monument to Downtown Crossing’s failures for decades.
Lafayette Place was supposed to lift up a derelict end of a struggling commercial district. Instead, the redevelopment fell victim to the torpor that has plagued Boston's downtown since the 1960s. Now, with Lafayette Place's current corporate occupants preparing to relocate to the booming Seaport district, there's no stronger barometer for Downtown Crossing's current renaissance than the latest repositioning project at the snakebitten Lafayette complex.
The old mall on Washington Street currently operates as the Lafayette Corporate Center, but the name is short-lived. State Street Bank is trading Downtown Crossing for a new, custom-built office complex along the Fort Point Channel. The departure will leave the building's owner, the Abbey Group, staring at a huge block of unremarkable, tough-to-fill office space. The Abbey Group is responding by rebranding the ex-mall-turned-corporate-center as the Lafayette City Center, and converting much of the vacant State Street offices into retail space.
In the 1970s, Boston redevelopment officials worked to bulldoze blocks of postwar commercial buildings, creating a superblock fit for a downtown mall. The Lafayette Place mall failed in 1989, less than a decade after it opened, and the building became a hub for commodity-grade office space. Now, office space is on the way out, and big-footprint retail is back in play. At each turn, the Lafayette block turned with seismic shifts in the surrounding downtown neighborhood.
Boston redevelopment officials approved the Lafayette Place mall as part of a 12-acre downtown redevelopment play. The project, which cleared blocks of older buildings on the northern edge of the Combat Zone, also included a hotel (now the downtown Hyatt) and a new downtown flagship for Jordan Marsh (the current Macy's block). In 1975, Boston Redevelopment Authority director Robert Kenney called the Lafayette and Jordan Marsh project "an unequivocal statement of confidence in the economic future of this city." In reality, it was a last-ditch bid to head off the flight of commercial dollars from the downtown core.
At the time, Boston's industrial base was collapsing, and shoppers were abandoning the city for suburban shopping malls. Washington Street's flagship department stores still picked up daytime business from commuters working downtown, but the downtown had lost its status as the region's shopping hub. City officials hoped the new Jordan's and the Lafayette Place mall would draw new shoppers downtown, bringing energy and life to an area that sat on the edge of the seedy Combat Zone.
The Lafayette Place mall bid failed. Retail wouldn't take root in a part of town that was often devoid of people. Instead of strengthening the Washington Street pedestrian corridor by drawing shoppers down from Filene's and Jordan's, the mall greeted the city with a long, lifeless, solid-brick facade. The shopping complex never drew crowds. It closed in 1989, and its conversion to back-office space seemed to confirm Downtown Crossing's fate as a secondary destination that existed primarily as a part-time enclave for commuters.
Now, for the first time since Boston city planners dreamed up the Lafayette Place mall, the streets around the failed shopping mall are full of optimism. The old theaters across the street are shining again. Large residential towers are rising up and down Washington Street, at Kensington Place, Hayward Place, and the former Filene's site. Investors are converting a pre-war office complex at Washington and Temple Place into a boutique hotel. Real estate investors are seeing new opportunities in Downtown Crossing's old buildings — so much so that Lafayette Place is suddenly netting retail investment.
It's a partial vindication of the BRA's decades-old vision of Downtown Crossing as a pedestrian-oriented shopping core. But it also shows that those old BRA planners got the order of battle wrong. The Lafayette mall failed because retail development alone can't save a neighborhood. It's seeing a comeback because the city is finally building the thousands of residences it needs to support a vibrant downtown.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.