IF THE ANSWER is, "a colossal drug store,'' the question couldn't possibly have been, "What could transform Downtown Crossing into a more vibrant, exciting part of Boston?''
When the Borders book chain filed for bankruptcy and moved out of its flagship store on the corner of School and Washington streets last year, many residents hoped a dynamic retailer or forward-thinking business would move into the location, which sits across from the Old South Meeting House on the Freedom Trail. Instead, after months of speculation, Walgreens has announced plans to open up a new 24,000-square-foot megastore in the space by next fall.
With more residences in the downtown area, no doubt some people who live nearby will welcome the chance to buy household items, even though a CVS is practically next door. But this historic location, in the heart of Boston's once-thriving retail mecca, deserves a more distinctive tenant.
To its credit, Walgreens has promised to build "something unique and different'' by designing the store as a "European boutique'' featuring amenities like a sushi bar and a hair and nail salon. When compared to some of the drab drugstores around town, it's certainly a step up. But it's a stretch to claim it will provide anything novel. In this day and age, serving sushi and cutting hair are hardly unique offerings. If Walgreens wants to make the store a destination for residents and tourists alike - and something truly deserving of its prominent location - it needs to up the ante.
For inspiration, it should look back to the grand department stores that first made Downtown Crossing a shopping destination during the early 20th century. When they were built, those stores featured new technologies, attractions, and products that drew customers in droves. Walgreens should follow their example and offer the neighborhood and shoppers something more, not just more of the same.
As it stands, the area around Washington Street - once the city's newspaper row, where people would gather for updates of unfolding news stories, and later its Christmas-tree-laden retail plaza - is suffering badly. The still-empty Filene's site is sucking life out of the shopping district, and changes like replacing a Borders with a Walgreens will hardly attract any newcomers. Boston has to do better by its downtown.