Downtown View:Is There Hope for Downtown Crossing?

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from 2010. Isn’t it interesting how times have changed?

Even though Downtown Crossing’s central location should make it a convenient destination for Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Charlestown, North End and Waterfront residents, few choose to go there, even though a good number work nearby. I bet we can all agree on what’s wrong with the place.

Let’s start with the most recent problems. The intersection where Summer and Winter streets join at Washington is book-ended by a hole in the ground on one side at Filene’s (John Hynes and Vornado, developers) and an empty parking lot on the other at Hayward Place (courtesy of Millennium Partners). Holes in the ground and parking lots are bad for business.

Filene’s hole and the parking lot didn’t cause other vacancies along the streets—well, actually the failed Filene’s development did eject Filene’s Basement—but they highlight the loss of Barnes and Noble and other businesses that might have attracted residents in surrounding neighborhoods to the area.

Next, take a look at the 19th– and early 20th-century buildings—handsome, solid things they are, with delightful detailing and the scale that many Bostonians favor. The buildings are shabby, but the rentals aren’t much cheaper than those in the city’s best neighborhoods. You realize these buildings suffer from the same kind of community-destroying mentality that afflicts the back of Beacon Hill, lots of the North End and other downtown properties here and there. That mentality decrees that owners may suck every dime out of their buildings while putting not one penny back into them.

There’s also the loss of the old Boston. Winter and Summer streets once were the crème de la crème of the city. Filene’s, Jordan Marsh and other Boston department stores were dignified landmarks with a sense of place. But with Jordan’s now Macy’s and the other department stores gone, the area is no longer a destination for anyone who can avoid it.

Then there are the kids. They hang around without anything to do. Passers-by think they look threatening. Why aren’t they in school? Why aren’t they studying, working, playing a sport? It’s a touchy subject since most of the kids are black and most of the complainers are white. And you know that in the city’s richer neighborhoods, teenagers have little time for hanging out, since their private schools keep them until 4 p.m. with all kinds of activities. The fact that the kids are there reminds passers-by of the unequal opportunities we offer our young people, and it’s another reason for the guilty discomfort of the downtown Boston resident who cares about the next generation.

One little thing, but it is irksome, is the neglect and, once in awhile, the erasure of narrow historic passageways that amuse pedestrians and invite them to explore further. With another kind of vision, these passageways could be to Boston what the delightful glass-covered shopping arcades are to Paris and London. (Recently, WalkBoston has led tours of these passageways and they may in the future. Go to to follow their walking tour schedule.)

Then there is the Downtown Crossing name—imposed by the city’s PR faction to try to make appealing an area already going downhill. Now the name, attached seemingly forever by becoming a T station’s name, stands for a trashy section of the city where you don’t want to go.

The name is only one of the civic failures. In the late 1990s, the city tried to establish a Business Improvement District, a scheme in which the property owners are taxed extra to keep an area clean and safe. Naturally, the slum-lord style property owners objected, and, surprisingly, so did the police department, over a proposal for private security guards to be included as part of the safety campaign. So that plan went nowhere.

Which leaves the city at where it is now with a dumpy central commercial core that you’d never take your visiting friends and relatives to.

            But even with no current hope for the hole in the ground and the parking lot, there are signs of change. Next week I’ll give you a run-down of a few steps being taken to improve the area. The remedies are squeezing in from the sides and slowly emerging from the middle.

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