Boston’s Seaport district used to be an abandoned rail yard. Now it’s becoming the Back Bay with a sea breeze: a place where deep-pocketed corporations cluster together in new glass towers, once they’ve moved on from Boston’s downtown.
The new face of Boston’s Seaport is the old face of the city’s downtown. The lawyers and accountants who are financing the waterfront construction boom are abandoning Boston’s historic commercial center for something newer and more exciting. This exodus is opening up cheaper commercial space for creative firms and tech companies.
Boston’s downtown and its waterfront are slowly swapping identities.
It’s happening more by inertia than by master plan. To make the switch work, Boston City Hall needs to make its planning catch up to the new reality. It needs to recognize that its old downtown is dead, and ask, how does a modern downtown function?
A pair of moves in the last two weeks underscored seismic shifts happening in Boston’s business district. Goodwin Procter, a white-shoe law firm that currently enjoys a State Street address, broke ground on its new Fan Pier office tower. And the Cambridge Innovation Center, a business incubator that sits at the center of Kendall Square’s innovation economy, announced plans to take over five floors of a downtown office tower.
Of the two, Goodwin’s move carries less drama. The speed at which old-line firms are abandoning the downtown for the Seaport is remarkable. Still, the high cost of building in Boston always meant that the Seaport’s growth would come on the backs of big-ticket corporations from the area.
The real action is in the commercial center that the Seaport’s new tenants are leaving behind. A financial firm vacated the offices the Cambridge Innovation Center will move into. It used to be that, when one downtown firm moved out of an office tower, another would slide into its place. The Seaport has thrown this game of musical chairs far off balance. There are now far more empty spaces downtown than there are law firms, financial houses, and accountants to fill them. So the empty spaces are going to the next wave of Boston companies.
CIC Boston’s bid to reinvigorate a soulless-looking corporate tower on Milk Street speaks to the neighborhood’s next incarnation. The firm is following the path that PayPal blazed by moving into International Place. CIC Boston will open two blocks from the new home of Arnold Worldwide; the ad agency is trading in the Back Bay for new offices inside the historic Filene’s block. They’re joined by scores of smaller creative and tech companies that are embracing the downtown after being priced out of the Seaport. Together, they’re saving Boston’s downtown from corporate abandonment.
The steady churn downtown, with old-line firms marching out, and new economy ones coming in, is changing the neighborhood’s demographics. If Boston officials want to make these changes stick, they need to think through how the downtown’s new workers will encounter the neighborhood.
City officials need to encourage the development of housing and dynamic, independent retail — amenities that will help anchor the downtown’s new business community in place. It needs to make the downtown look more like Kendall Square looks today, and less like Kendall looked 10 years ago.
Most of all, the city needs a plan for seizing on the downtown’s new direction, and pushing it forward. Development officials under Mayor Tom Menino said they welcomed a dynamic new downtown, but had no firm plan for getting there, and no way of measuring progress along the way. Mayor Marty Walsh needs to recognize that businesses like PayPal, Arnold, and CIC Boston can help catalyze a reinvented downtown. They’re the starting point, not the finish.Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.