City officials will gather downtown on Tuesday, bend their knees, and toss a couple shovelfuls of ceremonial dirt into the air. The stated reason for this display is the official start of construction on the Filene’s block, and the end of Boston’s longest-running development soap opera. These types of ceremonies happen all the time around town, but few are as significant as this one. The ceremony celebrates much more than the reemergence of construction crews on a lifeless block at the city’s core. It celebrates a fundamental shift in Boston’s relationship with its downtown.
The block has enjoyed an outsized presence in Boston’s history, and in its psyche. Filene’s stood as a symbol of the pre-war boom years when Washington Street bustled with department stores, and the downtown acted as Boston’s throbbing commercial heart. The old department store also embodied the decline that rocked the downtown shopping district in the 1960s and beyond, when residents fled the city for the suburbs, retailers chased after them, and the downtown commercial core settled into a grungy obsolescence.
When the former owner of the block, Vornado Realty Trust, began, and then abandoned, an ambitious redevelopment project at the site, the massive crater it left wasn’t just another failed development bid; it was an open wound, a reminder that decades of redevelopment efforts in surrounding neighborhoods had passed by Downtown Crossing. Boston’s boom times, its scuzzy down years, and its tremendous potential, are all tied up in this one block at the heart of the downtown. That’s why the fate of one old department store resonates across the city.
For all the identity wrapped up in its past, though, the current redevelopment bid at the Filene’s block is a decidedly forward-looking project. It isn’t trying to reanimate the ghost of pre-Prohibition Washington Street, as the failed Lafayette Place mall two blocks up the street did during the depths of the downtown’s commercial slump. Instead, an enormous new tower will break with Washington Street’s commerce-heavy past, and embrace a new downtown dynamic that revolves around people.
Developer Millennium Partners is converting the historic old department store building into office space for creative tenants like ad firm Arnold Worldwide. The firm is also constructing retail shops on the building’s lower floors. (The Boston Herald previously reported on talks between Millennium and the grocer Roche Brothers.) The cornerstone of the redevelopment, though, is what will rise next to the historic department store: a massive, 625-foot-tall residential tower.
The tower will contain roughly 425 residences, and it will be one of the tallest residential structures in Boston, creating the kind of population density that’s needed to turn places like Downtown Crossing around. The neighborhood struggled for years because it bustled during work hours, but shut down once area office workers retreated back into the suburbs. The redevelopment aims to remake Boston’s downtown into a full-time neighborhood that’s as lively after dinner as it is during bankers’ hours. This transformation is only possible if the downtown transforms from a strictly commercial zone into a place where people can live and work and shop. Millennium’s project delivers all three, but it’s especially heavy on the residential component, because that’s what the neighborhood needs the most.
The work happening at the Filene’s block is emblematic of cities’ new relationships with their downtowns. Cities across the country are flourishing where people have reclaimed their downtowns. This is the type of work that’s happening, on a smaller scale, in places like Quincy, Lowell, Worcester, and Malden; all four are reanimating underused downtowns by developing dense new pockets of residents. The calculus in those forward-looking cities is the same as it is at Filene’s: Heavy numbers of new residents activate neighborhoods, allowing dynamic retailers to set up shop, and drawing yet more residents and visitors downtown.
The promise of the impending Filene’s redevelopment has been enough to get this cycle moving, with the Hamilton Co. recently opening new loft apartments across Washington Street, and a 240-room hotel rising just up the street. Anthony Pangaro, the Millennium developer leading the Filene’s project, talks about pushing the downtown to become “a complete space.”
“The different pieces were already there,” Pangaro says. “We just forgot how to use them.”
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.