The 2008 collapse of the massive Filene’s redevelopment turns out to have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Downtown Crossing. It didn’t look like it at the time; the project’s failure darkened the windows in a historic department store, opened up a crater ringed with construction in Boston’s geographic heart, and radiated blight throughout a neighborhood that was struggling already. But since then, Downtown Crossing has taken a sharp turn.
The area is becoming the domain of college kids, young diners, and creative workers, all of whom are unencumbered by the memories and prejudices about what the place used to be. It’s a snapshot of the demographic and economic changes sweeping over much of Boston, distilled down and played out over a handful of blocks along Washington Street. There’s no room in this new Downtown Crossing for the type of building that was supposed to rise above the Filene’s block in 2008. The new building, on the other hand, will give staying power to everything that’s happened in the neighborhood since the crater on Washington Street first opened up.
The streets around the spot where the Red Line dips under the Orange Line are buzzing right now. New restaurants are filling vacant storefronts. Construction cranes tower above. Prewar office buildings are seeing a surge in interest from businesses. Thousands of new residents are poised to move into apartment and condominium towers springing up around the neighborhood. In an area that has long scuffled along, even as the blocks around it have boomed, the fact that this rebound is afoot is significant in its own right. More important than the fact that something is happening, though, is the endgame in Downtown Crossing’s transformation.
The assets driving Downtown Crossing forward — access to mass transit, handsome turn-of-the-century architecture, and massive waves of daytime foot traffic — were in place during the neighborhood’s long struggles, too. What’s different now? Downtown Boston finally has a critical mass of new residents and businesses anchoring a neighborhood economy. Tech companies getting priced out of South Boston are discovering the neighborhood’s affordable, loft-like office buildings. College students from Emerson and Suffolk live alongside scores of pioneering residents taking the same leaps of faith that turned around formerly rundown neighborhoods like the South End; together, they’ve put enough feet on downtown streets to support new restaurants, bars, and coffee shops on formerly dead blocks.
This is a much heavier lift than the one Seaport developers are currently engaged in. The Seaport is Boston’s most visible ongoing development project, but it’s also largely a blank slate. Seaport developers just have to design good buildings and put them in the ground. In Downtown Crossing, they have to repurpose existing buildings and bury a long, inglorious recent history.
This isn’t a comeback story. It isn’t about bringing Downtown Crossing back. Urban department stores are never going to climb back over the suburban shopping malls that sent them to oblivion. Instead, Downtown Crossing is reinventing itself as a unique destination in a rapidly changing city. That’s why the failure of the old Filene’s tower looms so largely.
The redevelopment plan that imploded in 2008 centered around a generic white-collar office program. It included shops and a hotel and some condominiums, but the proposed tower was first and foremost an office building. Loan troubles halted construction in 2008, but the project really sank when its lead office tenant, the law firm Fish & Richardson, abandoned downtown for Fan Pier.
Millennium Partners’ current redevelopment plan for the Filene’s block flips the old model on its head. Millennium is erecting Boston’s tallest residential tower where the downtown crater now sits. But the real action is down low, where the developer is converting much of the historic department store into commercial space for the next generation of Boston office users. The space will have few walls and fewer cubicles. Millennium is targeting young, collaborative, creative companies — the types of companies that are key to Boston’s future.
Millennium’s play isn’t to recreate the Back Bay, or to ape what’s happening in the Seaport. It’s an amplification of what’s already happening in Downtown Crossing — housing, creative businesses, and retail combining to create a neighborhood that feels different than anything else in Boston. The developer’s Filene’s project would never work for a law firm. And that’s by design.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.