Catalyst for Change
After a decade of struggle, Downtown Crossing is on the verge of a reboot.
Originally Posted in Boston Common Magazine by Michael Blanding
For five years, it’s been known simply as “the hole”—a yawning pit at the corner of Washington and Franklin Streets that has marked the failed development of the Filene’s block and sucked the life out of the Downtown Crossing neighborhood. Then, slowly, something new happened. Shovels started kicking at that dirt, the groundbreaking of a new glass tower that—if all goes well—will finally put Boston’s most central and most benighted neighborhood back on the map.
Downtown Crossing has always looked good on paper—it’s located at the intersection of the Red and Orange lines and snuggled up against both the Financial District and the Common. But its twisted history has put the lie in the old adage of “location, location, location.” Since Filene’s department store opened in 1912, the neighborhood was the go-to destination for both fashion- and bargain-savvy Bostonians. In recent years, however, the neighborhood has lost its footing. Filene’s closed, victim to competition not only from Macy’s next door, but from malls and clothing stores throughout the suburbs. Then, one by one, the other retailers that anchored the neighborhood also disappeared—Borders, Barnes & Noble, Strawberry, and FYE all lost the battle against Internet shopping. Even venerable restaurant Locke- Ober shuttered its doors last year after 137 years in business.
Each of these closures left gaping holes in the fabric of the neighborhood. But none was so gaping as the literal hole left by developer Vornado Realty Trust, which was charged with redeveloping the Filene’s site but cried poverty after the Great Recession of 2008, earning the undying enmity of the mayor, who called the company “scurrilous” in public, and many other things in private. At the same time, with so much of the neighborhood dependent on retail, residential properties have never gotten their footing—even as the area once called the Combat Zone (remember that?) next door bloomed to life with the Ritz-Carlton development and other projects.
So you could practically hear the sigh of relief across the city when Millennium Partners, which developed the Ritz, swooped in to take over the Filene’s project last year. Their plan calls for simplifying the development to focus on retail in a faithfully restored Filene’s building and adjoining “retail row,” and developing 450 upscale residences in a soaring glass obelisk called Millennium Tower, which is slated to become the fourth-tallest building in Boston. “We wanted to create something that would work on a neighborhood scale and an urban scale,” says Blake Middleton, partner in Handel Architects, which designed the building. “The intersection of the Red and Orange lines has always had a name, but there was no clear marker on the skyline of the city. This 625-foot tower will really pinpoint Downtown Crossing.”
The tower will also serve as a marked contrast to the monolithic stone architecture that characterizes the neighborhood. To solve the problem of a long, flat pane of glass at street level, the architects broke up the exterior in a series of asymmetrical folds, similar to a cut-crystal Champagne flute, that will reflect the surrounding skyline. That visual marker is important as a signpost that something is going on in the neighborhood. “Projects of this magnitude, we call them catalysts for change,” says Middleton. “They are of such a scale that if done right, they have an incredible power to change the pattern of what is going on in the city.” Already advertising giant Arnold Worldwide has taken more than 100,000 feet in the historic Filene’s building, ensuring a steady influx of hipsters in the neighborhood after dark, and Millennium is reportedly in negotiations with several big-box retailers, including Roche Bros., which is considering opening an urban supermarket in the space.
The project both spurs and complements other new developments in the neighborhood, including The Kensington, a 381-unit apartment building at Washington and LaGrange, as well as a flagship Walgreens store in the old Borders building. According to Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Randi Lathrop, 95 new retail businesses have opened in the neighborhood since 2008 (though she admits most of those have been within the past two years), and currently nearly 1,100 housing units are under construction, a significant addition to the neighborhood’s current 6,000 residents. A new boutique hotel by Chicago’s Oxford Capital Group is in the works on Temple Place; high-end condos are being built in the Locke-Ober building; and several new restaurants, including JM Curley, Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale, and Petit Robert Central Bistro, have hit the right balance between destination and neighborhood dining. The city has helped the process along by creating its first-ever Business Improvement District three years ago, earmarking some $3 million a year from a tax on neighborhood retailers for beautification projects.