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(Photograph by Josh Campbell)

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Downtown Crossing is smack in the middle of the city. Its very location should make it the place where everybody wants to be. So why has it always felt like something was missing, and is that "something" about to finally turn it into a real, live neighborhood?

By Stephanie Schorow
December 7, 2008
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At first, the cabdrivers would eye her incredulously and then, inevitably, ask the question: "Why the heck do you want to be dropped off with a bag of groceries in Downtown Crossing at midnight?" Well, Mary Ann Ponti would explain, she actually lived there, on Washington Street, just across from Macy's, adding, "Do you realize that people live there?"

Cabbies may not realize that people call Downtown Crossing home, but Ponti certainly does. In 2002, she moved into a condo converted from the offices of a former sheet-music business; she found that no other urban-feeling Boston neighborhood could give her as much space for such a competitive a price. She's not alone. Today, an estimated 6,000 residents and about 2,000 students live in the blocks around the public transportation epicenter of Summer, Winter, and Washington streets. Once the city's retailing heart, it is now a mixture of shops, offices, empty storefronts, and construction sites. And an estimated 1,500 new residents are expected if and when several construction projects are completed.

But for now, Downtown Crossing is a complicated district with a serious identity crisis. The area, from Boston Common to the Financial District and from the Old State House to the edge of Chinatown, remains a rundown shopping zone long past its glory days, even as it slowly transforms into a blossoming residential area. As old shops close, exciting new restaurants open. The blocks near the old Paramount Theatre and Opera House buzz and rumble with construction activity, even as some other major building projects stall. The streets off Washington are a jumble of retail and services, from soup kitchens to professional offices to souvenir shops. Old and new, upscale and ramshackle sit side by side; Million Dollar Mary's Smoke Shop operates across the street from luxury condos of the soon-to-open 45 Province development. All of which make the neighborhood like no other in Boston.

"I love the diversity of this neighborhood," Ponti, a vice president at the brokerage firm Sterne Agee & Leach, tells me in the quiet of her spacious one-bedroom condo. "I love being able to walk out the front door and get a feeling of what's happening in the city. There are a lot of nooks and crannies around here that have specialized stuff. You can catch a show at the Opera House. I love the fact I'm 60 seconds away from a Chanel counter."

Ponti's boosterism may startle those who have long given up on Downtown Crossing. Her enthusiasm may even spark snickers among cynics who say they've heard this talk of revitalization before; many times, in fact. Just 20 years ago, Downtown Crossing was the region's number one shopping area, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. By 1996, it was not even among the region's top 10. The construction of Copley Place, the Atrium Mall, CambridgeSide Galleria, and other suburban malls drained shoppers, and the once stalwart department-store model faltered. Efforts to slow the bleeding -- when there were efforts -- failed. "The last time the city did any planning in the district was in the late '70s and early '80s, when we created the Downtown Crossing brand and turned it into a pedestrian mall," Boston Redevelopment Authority senior planner Andrew Grace says. "It was really modeled on the success of Faneuil Hall, and one of the recommendations in the plan at the time was to create a mall to compete with the malls that were emerging in the suburbs. That was Lafayette Place."

Ah, Lafayette Place. Built with a fortress mentality on Avenue de Lafayette, the project was either a "nightmare" or a "disaster," depending on who you ask (it has since been completely remodeled). Then, an attempt in the late 1990s to launch a Business Improvement District, in which businesses were assessed money for joint projects, improvements, and marketing, also failed. Other efforts to woo back shoppers spooked by the increasingly empty storefronts sputtered and faltered. Meanwhile, the area grew grimmer and glummer; the purchase of Jordan Marsh by Macy's and the closing of Filene's seemed to hammer the last nail in the coffin. Finally, "we absolutely had to do something about downtown Boston," Grace says. "We needed to drive the bus, direct the change. The district was just too important to let fall by the wayside."

So the BRA has spent $800,000 developing yet another long-range plan for the district. In November 2007, the selection of former Boston city councilor Rosemarie Sansone as president of the Downtown Crossing Association (now Downtown Crossing Partnership) was viewed as an important step. Sansone is in the early stages of trying to launch a downtown Business Improvement District and "looking at other successful models in the country." In the meantime, committees of retailers, residents, and property owners are meeting weekly to discuss issues from homelessness to street cleaning to crime.

It hasn't come easily. Like Ponti, Sansone found she had some educating to do when she started her job. "People would look at me and say, 'People live here?' "

Not only do they live here, but those people, the longtime residents and the new ones, may just be the best hope to revive Downtown Crossing and transform it from merely a place where shoppers shop and workers work into a place where shoppers linger over lunch with their day's purchases, workers meet for dinner, and residents call out greetings to one another as they make a morning coffee run. No longer a business district but a neighborhood.

Boston is a city of neighborhoods. Beware the outsider who confuses the South End with South Boston, the North End with Charlestown, or fails to differentiate between Roxbury and Dorchester. And it's the neighbors in those neighborhoods who take it on themselves to make sure their streets are clean, sidewalks repaired, graffiti removed, and lights fixed, among the myriad other things that make a neighborhood desirable.

All that and more is now being done with greater urgency in Downtown Crossing as part of the four-year-old Downtown Crossing Economic Improvement Initiative by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The BRA is working with Sansone and a group of retailers, business owners, developers, and residents to, as Sansone says, "make this a destination again."

Private developers are pouring in a staggering amount of money: About $1.463 billion in projects are planned, including the $700 million One Franklin Street development on the site of the former Filene's. The project as originally conceived would have 39 stories, with a blend of residential units, hotel rooms, offices, parking, and lower-level shops, including Filene's Basement.

Yes, the "old" Basement, with bins, hand-painted signs, and the beloved automatic markdown, is scheduled to return, this time with three levels instead of two. Filene's Basement spokeswoman Pat Boudrot says the company plans to re-create treasured aspects of the discount institution in 120,000 square feet of space. ("Yeah!" is Ponti's reaction.)

And those are just a few of the changes coming. There is the completed update to One Boston Place office building at Washington and Court streets; 45 Province, with 138 units of luxury housing; the 550-seat Paramount Theatre restoration by Emerson College, which will create about 260 dormitory beds; Suffolk University's Modern Theatre restoration, with about 200 dorm beds; and a 28-floor development at One Bromfield Street, among others.

There is also the recent conversion of the long-empty 10 West Street into a Suffolk dormitory with 270 beds and retail space. There are new restaurants: Max & Dylans on West Street, the renovation of the venerable Marliave on Bosworth Street, the Bina Osteria restaurant and gourmet food shop on Washington by the owners of Lala Rokh, and plans by the owner of Ivy Restaurant for transforming the former Stoddard's cutlery building on Temple Place. A onetime police booth near the entrance to the Orange and Red lines has been transformed into an information kiosk, aiding residents as well as wayward tourists wandering over from the Freedom Trail on School Street. Signage rules have been toughened, and there are plans to eliminate curbs and raise the grade of a part of Washington Street to emphasize that pedestrians, not vehicles, have the right of way.

But Downtown Crossing momentum is not immune from the meltdown on Wall Street. Grace said in October that a 14-story residential and retail project on Hayward Place had been stalled due to financial jitters but that other projects were financed and proceeding; barely a week later, the key One Franklin project was put on hold for 90 days until financing was secured. The project may also be forced to scale back, a blow to those who say the building -- and the return of Filene's Basement -- is a linchpin in the revitalization of Downtown Crossing. If Downtown Crossing has one huge advantage over, say, the development of the South Boston Waterfront, it's that the latter still has to build up foot traffic before it can take off. That's one thing Downtown Crossing has, and then some. An estimated 230,000 people visit the area daily, and about 162,000 work within a 10-minute walk. There are ample, if pricey, parking garages. Yet, much to the frustration of Sansone and others, "for one reason or another, it's become a place where people pass through" but don't linger, she says.

Consultants hired by the BRA found that despite the high foot traffic, "people weren't slowing down, they weren't pausing, they were walking through." The challenge, says the BRA's deputy director, Randi Lathrop, became how to get more people to stop, shop, drink, meet. A branding campaign was launched to promote Downtown Crossing as the city's "meeting place" and a 24/7 neighborhood (even if most of the businesses do lock their doors by 9 p.m.)

A massive holiday program along this theme is being planned. A "holiday village" will be created on Summer Street, with live animals, a carousel, carolers, jazz bands, and Santa. A restaurant special event and an event for the area's 300 jewelry stores are being organized. A discount shopping pass will be available at downtowncrossing.org. A second "Home Sweet Home" tour this Saturday will showcase some of the nearly 4,000 downtown residences, ranging from luxury condos to converted lofts on Temple Place, and Washington, Avery, and Province streets. The first home tour attracted nearly 400 participants, from as far away as Rhode Island and Maine.

Like many residents, Mayor Tom Menino remembers visiting Downtown Crossing with his parents for the holidays, to shop and see the decorated windows at Jordan Marsh and Filene's. He remembers the Louisville Slugger baseball bats at the long-gone Raymond's for $3.99. Even as mayor, he remained a regular at Filene's Basement.

You don't need to be a consultant to see the diversity of people crossing Washington and Winter streets. Men in suits mingle with women in saris. Boys in baggy pants tease girls in tight jeans. On one corner, a Baptist hands out a pamphlet asking, "Who is He?" On another, an activist pleads: "Do you have a moment for gay rights?" A gaggle of street photographers often hangs out to snap candid shots. Police on horseback, bike, and foot patrol the streets. The glittering windows of the E.B. Horn jewelry store slow down some passersby; others stride quickly into Macy's, Eddie Bauer, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, or one of the district's 525 retail businesses.

"One thing that's so special about Downtown Crossing, it is the face of Boston. Unlike Copley Place, unlike the Prudential Center, unlike Faneuil Hall," the BRA's Lathrop says. Sansone tells me: "It is one place in the morning. It is another place during the day. It is another place at night. It is even a different place on weekends. And, oh, by the way, it's a different world from the 21st floor up."

But can those different populations mingle without tension? Large groups of students who appear in the late afternoon often distress retailers and, some insist, intimidate shoppers. To discourage a rock- and hip-hop-loving crowd from loitering, classical music blares from the Corner Mall on Washington and Winter streets. Perceptions that the area is dangerous weren't helped by events of October 3, when two men were stabbed and shots fired there.

Boston Police Captain Bernard P. O'Rourke, commander of Area A-1, which includes Downtown Crossing, cited crime statistics from the blocks near Tremont, Boylston, Chauncy, Washington, Arch, and Court streets that show crime rates are, in his words, "very average" for the city, and in fact are actually low considering how many people pass through daily. For example, Downtown Crossing had 40 robberies, 42 aggravated assaults, and 512 larcenies recorded from January to November this year. A roughly equivalent area of Back Bay in the same period had 33 robberies, 41 aggravated assaults, and 670 larcenies.

"The large majority of those kids are causing nobody any undue concern other than the fact that they're in groups, they're a little loud, maybe a little vulgar," O'Rourke says. Ponti, the woman who lives on Washington Street, says she has never felt unsafe living there. "My final decision to buy the property was after I took a walk through here at night," she says, "because I knew I was going to have to walk my dog at night."

The problems, says Kenneth Gloss, who runs the Brattle Book Stop on West Street, are mostly about perception. It's not the kids who create a feeling of unease, he says. "The empty storefronts are more of a problem."A huge gash cuts through the heart OF Downtown Crossing: the deep hole of the One Franklin Street project. The historic facades of the Filene's building have been preserved but other walls have been ripped away, leaving the interiors exposed like skeletons. Just across the street is a former Barnes & Noble bookstore, its 37,000 square feet empty, its windows covered with peppy slogans from the city's branding campaign: "History Meet Future," "Push Meet Cart," "CEO Meet CFO," and "Spoon Meet Chowder."

The bright messages can't quite dispel the sense of a no-man's land. Nearby are the empty storefronts of Mattress Discounters and the closed grates of Fat Tony's and Kim's Menswear. In a doorway of a former CVS, a homeless man huddles with heaps of bedraggled possessions. "Space for Lease" signs seem as common as pigeons.

What the area needs in those empty spaces, residents and planners say, are more moderately priced sit-down restaurants, a home-goods store, and perhaps a grocer or dry cleaner. Not more cellphone stores, fast-food places, or pawnshops. But as in so many urban projects, there's a danger of driving out smaller unique shops or services. Planners insist the goal is not to strip Downtown Crossing of its gritty urban character. Streets need to be clean, but the area's 39 pushcarts will remain in some form, Sansone says. Stores should have "high quality" but not necessarily "high-end" goods. It is the ultimate balancing act.

"This area will never get gentrified per se," Menino tells me. "It will be a mixed use of retail and upscale. That's very important to us, because all of us can't go into the upscale area. Working people need moderate-income clothes or accessories." Although, he adds almost wistfully, "you're not going to have $3.99 bats at Raymond's anymore."

The One Franklin project is "the tipping point," says James Adler, who has run various pushcart businesses in Downtown Crossing for 24 years. "When that is completed, with all its beauty and its design shell, that will promote more business to come and set up shop. Right now, there are a lot of empty spaces. And that has to do with the economy and the fact that landlords are not lowering the rents."

Some of those empty storefronts will be filled temporarily when local artists are invited to sell wares there, rent-free, for the holidays.

What will make a permanent difference is having residents who care about their neighborhood. "If you have people out at night, living in the area, they care about how the lighting is," Gloss says. "They care about how the sidewalks look. They care about how the trash is put out. And the more people you have living here, be it students, be it actually [residents], that is a huge thing. They also vote."

Indeed, nowadays, Ponti finds, cabbies seem to know that people actually live in Downtown Crossing. And when she learned that Menino was in the area to film a Downtown Crossing holiday announcement, Ponti scurried into the street with a broom for a quick sweep. "This is," she explains as she rushes by, "my neighborhood."

Crossing Over

Residential units -- but no single-family homes -- are scattered through Downtown Crossing, ranging from a $4.9 million unit recently sold at the Ritz-Carlton on Avery Street to a renovated loft on Temple Place, which sold for $520,000 at the bargain-basement price of $374 per square foot.

The median price of residential properties in Downtown Crossing and Chinatown is $706,000, or $683.50 per square foot. This does not account for a new 138-unit project at 45 Province, where the price per square foot ranges from $700 to $2,000.

Prices are comparable with Back Bay (median price $767,000; $759 per square foot) and Beacon Hill (median price $560,000; $732 per square foot).

Figures provided by Deanna Palmin and Christina Tiemann of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.

Stephanie Schorow is a Boston-area writer and author of East of Boston: Notes From the Harbor Islands. E-mail her at sschorow@comcast.net.

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