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Downtown Crossing plans to revise its look
By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff | July 11, 2005
Downtown Crossing is at a crossroads.
Over the next year, the shopping district might lose a department store after the parent companies of Macy's and Filene's merge. This would create a vacancy that could doom the area. Or, if officials and other merchants get their way, Downtown Crossing would be the newest home to Target Corp., the chic discounter; this could mark a turning point.
After years of sparse dollars and failed initiatives, no one is taking any chances this time. The city and retailers are planning to spend more than $1 million over the next year to improve the outdoor part of the grimy retail district, in the largest investment made in more than two decades. The idea is to add everything from hanging plants to free wireless Internet to new benches.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who once pushed a street-cleaning machine to show his commitment to the area, said the time to fix Downtown Crossing is now.
''It's not where I want it to be," Menino said in a recent interview.
Once Boston's top shopping destination, Downtown Crossing has lost some of its luster. The area now has a retail vacancy rate of about 7 percent, compared with about 5 percent for tony Newbury Street, according to a Downtown Crossing Association study and the real estate firm Finard & Co.
Businesses, meanwhile, have abandoned the area for more pristine pastures in the Back Bay and the suburbs. Stoddard's, the cutlery retailer, closed its Temple Place building last year after a half-century in Downtown Crossing, but it kept stores in Copley Place and Chestnut Hill, and it opened a warehouse in Newton.
These days, a craggy mix of discount chains, fast-food spots, and vacant storefronts line Washington Street and surrounding blocks in Downtown Crossing, where more than 100,000 people pass through daily. Banners and signs -- some of which violate ordinances -- hang from businesses; sandwich boards and pushcarts, hawking everything from peanuts to ties, clutter sidewalks.
''It's tired, it's dirty, and it can be a real downer," said David Levin, chief executive of Casual Male Retail Group Inc., which opened a store recently in Downtown Crossing. ''It has a real identity crisis."
The reality of Downtown Crossing is increasingly at odds with the higher-end image that some residents, retailers, and city officials want the neighborhood to have. Stylish boutiques, swank restaurants, and simple conveniences -- perhaps a supermarket -- are in growing demand.
In recent years, the arrival of luxury hotel Nine Zero and million-dollar condominiums at the Ritz-Carlton Towers have brought an upscale vibe, along with new residents, to the outskirts of Downtown Crossing. The Opera House has just received a makeover, and the nearby Paramount Theater is next on the list.
Still, the heart of the district -- along Washington, Summer, and Winter streets -- has remained largely immune to this gentrification. Vacancies persist, and new ones are opening up. And for the most part, Downtown Crossing, next to the Financial District, empties after the workday.
In its heyday, Downtown Crossing had a half-dozen department stores, including Jordan Marsh and R. H. Stearns, but the area began to fade when the landscape of retail changed and merchants moved to the suburbs.
The challenges have escalated since the area was closed off to most traffic in 1978 as part of a national movement to create outdoor malls in shopping areas. The retail district does not have alleys, forcing delivery vehicles and garbage trucks to share walkways with pedestrians. New bus stops have exacerbated congestion and have made it almost impossible for some businesses to expect ordinary services, such as receiving packages.
''There was a movement decades ago toward pedestrianizing, but ultimately, the consensus is that these outdoor shopping malls do not always work," said Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. ''The tension now is figuring out what Downtown Crossing should be."
Menino is banking on a public-private partnership to improve Downtown Crossing; he has moved on from the years he spent fighting the Legislature to approve a business improvement district. The initiative would have allowed merchants to tax themselves, and to use millions to beef up safety and sanitation. To this day, Boston remains the only major city without a business improvement district. New York City has more than 50.
''We need to help reinvent the area," said Randi Lathrop, the Boston Redevelopment Authority's deputy director for community planning.
Initial plans laid out by city officials call for about $167,000 in sidewalk repairs; $160,000 for plantings; $60,000 for wireless Internet hardware; and $25,000 for trash receptacles, among other improvements. Another $200,000 is earmarked to hire a consultant to help market Downtown Crossing and attract new retailers. In total, Boston has approved spending of about $700,000 and is seeking about $400,000 from retailers.
Meanwhile, Boston officials have stepped up enforcement of code violations -- issuing at least 30 citations this spring for such offenses as sign and health code violations. And the Downtown Crossing Association, which represents about 100 retailers, is launching a campaign to double its membership so it can be a more powerful force and pay for upgrades that the city can't guarantee.
''Downtown Crossing is not what it was like in the '50s," said association president Anne Meyers. ''But it certainly never died."
Despite these efforts, some say there is still no coordinated plan to remake Boston's pedestrian mall into similar outdoor retail successes found in Boston's Faneuil Hall, Minneapolis, and Santa Monica, Calif.
''There has never been a coherent vision for Downtown Crossing," said David Marks, Stoddard's owner. ''Putting in some plants isn't going to be enough."
Some critics fear that the efforts will turn the district into another Newbury Street or homogenized Faneuil Hall. They cherish Downtown Crossing for its urban flair, its bargain shopping, and a diverse crowd. ''The atmosphere is cool, and it's a pretty good area," said 21-year-old Kate Wood, sitting outside Borders bookstore on her lunch break.
Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.