Improvements underway

‘Ambassadors’ are key players in new district

Edwin Martinez removed graffiti at the corner of Washington and Franklin streets Thursday. Edwin Martinez removed graffiti at the corner of Washington and Franklin streets Thursday. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / April 2, 2011

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Inside a cramped conference room on Arch Street, Steve Brookes plotted the rebirth of downtown Boston.

Behind him was a poster-sized map showing a 34-block area he has been quietly canvassing in recent days, noting thousands of graffiti tags, places where trash piles up, and drab sections of sidewalk that could use a shot of color, or a serious power-washing.

“All of this is going to change,’’ said Brookes, sweeping his hand across the map. “You’ll see an immediate difference by next Friday, because all the graffiti is going to be gone, and a lot of the cigarette butts and trash will be gone.’’

Brookes is the newly appointed cleaning and hospitality manager of Boston’s first business improvement district, an organization that on Monday will start a campaign to revitalize the city’s long-suffering central shopping area. From early morning until after dark, he will be among 30 uniformed “ambassadors’’ who will be picking up trash, giving directions to tourists and shoppers, and generally trying to put a shine back on a part of the city that looks gritty and lacks an attractive mix of retailers.

The improvement district, which covers Downtown Crossing and parts of the Theatre and Financial districts, will be funded by $3 million in annual fees that commercial property owners have agreed to pay to supplement city services with stepped-up maintenance and tighter security. The daily work will be managed by Block by Block, a private firm that operates improvement districts in cities across the country, including New York, Providence, and Washington, D.C. The company has hired the ambassadors to begin working in Boston next week. A more formal kickoff with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a strong backer of the effort, is planned for May.

In confronting downtown Boston’s challenges, the firm’s managers will also be battling skepticism that their efforts will make much difference. The district is scarred by empty storefronts and a giant construction crater at the site of the stalled Filene’s redevelopment, which serves as a daily reminder of the economic downturn. It has also become a magnet for petty crime and teenagers who loiter in its alleys and dump trash on its streets.

“They congregate out there like it’s a nightclub,’’ said Jerry Blocher, owner of the Army & Navy Store who counts himself among the skeptics. “You can’t walk 5 feet without hearing the F-bomb.’’

Blocher, whose store is near the intersection of Summer and Washington streets, said he deals with shoplifters at least three days a week and is constantly irritated by unruly behavior and uneven sidewalks. He said removing graffiti and trash will help with appearances, but it will not fix what is broken.

“I don’t know what good it’s going to do,’’ he said. “I think they should take all the money and put it into getting more police down here.’’

The leaders of the business improvement district acknowledged it will take time to transform the area. The early goal, they said, is to clean the streets and deploy daily teams of ambassadors to help welcome people, meet area shopkeepers, and provide extra eyes and ears to assist police with problems.

Once they get a handle on maintenance and security issues, they can begin to improve landscaping and consider other aesthetic improvements, such as installing traditional gaslights and posting signs to direct visitors to historic sites and other attractions. The ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere that will attract more private investment in the form of new residences and retail stores.

“We all know this is not going to be like opening a hotel. That’s why they’re called Block by Block,’’ said Maria Morelli, a coordinator for the Downtown Boston BID, the nonprofit that oversees funding for the effort. “This is going to be done on a step-by-step basis. We know the change is going to be incremental, but it will move us in one direction, and that’s forward.’’

In recent decades, business improvement districts have become an increasingly popular method of restoring crime-ridden and blighted urban neighborhoods. There are about 1,200 districts operating in cities across the country, including several in Western Massachusetts.

During the last few decades, improvement districts have been credited with spurring the revitalization of many city neighborhoods, including Times Square and Bryant Park in New York City, both once seedy, crime-infested areas that are now among the city’s most popular destinations.

Downtown Crossing has seen an array of improvements in recent years, such as the restoration of the Boston Opera House and Paramount and Modern theaters, and the opening of several restaurants, including Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale on Temple Place, and Petit Robert Central, a bistro on Summer Street. Several developers are also planning to begin construction of residential buildings this year.

Still, those bright spots are surrounded by vandalism and an uninspiring retail mix that includes an inordinate number of cellphone stores and fast-food chains.

Brookes, the new cleaning and hospitality manager, said he is used to naysayers telling him his efforts will only nip around the edges of the real problem. He heard it in Baltimore. He heard it again when he ran a district in Santa Monica, Calif.

“I wish I could show you the before and after pictures in Santa Monica,’’ he said. “People said, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this.’ But when everyone comes together and everyone buys in, it all changes. There’s a lot of work to do here, but I welcome the challenge.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at