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Driving downtown

IT MAY take more than free wireless Internet, increased code enforcement, or even the addition of a popular, moderately priced department store to enliven Downtown Crossing. Counterintuitive as it may seem, what the struggling downtown pedestrian mall might really benefit from is the return of automobiles.

As malls drew shoppers to the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s, urban planners in Boston and elsewhere fought back by creating urban pedestrian malls -- three- or four-block areas closed to through traffic. From Boston to Santa Cruz, Calif., such spaces were touted as new town commons that would stimulate commerce and civility. But most have failed as business districts over the past two decades, often attracting truants, loiterers, and down-market retailers. The pedestrian mall along Washington Street between Temple and Bromfield streets has fared better than most thanks to ample public transit and consistent trade from the financial district. But store vacancies are growing, and a gaping hole could soon be left in either of the sites now occupied by Macy's and Filene's after the merger of the retailers' parent companies.

Shoppers might appreciate contained environments like Faneuil Market. But once they step onto the urban grid, they expect movement and action. Urban planners are discovering that shopping districts thrive on the friction between pedestrians and autos. Merchants want to be discovered by passing motorists. Pedestrians appreciate the sense of safety offered by car headlights at night. Too much space, it turns out, can be worse than too little. Downtown Crossing's open turf provides too many congregating points for vagrants. The reintroduction of automobiles could restore the natural urban balance where space is precious.

''Ultimately, you have to look at what gives a place vitality," says Jeff Soule, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based American Planning Association. ''The trend," he says, ''is to reintroduce streets."

Soule recommends that officials in Boston conduct merchant surveys and traffic studies for Downtown Crossing to explore various options. But he says that planners in most cities no longer view the pedestrian mall as a model worth saving.

Boston doesn't need another upscale shopping district like Newbury Street. The Boston Redevelopment Authority knows that and wisely seeks to woo a moderately priced retailer like Target to Downtown Crossing or a similarly successful store that appeals to shoppers across class lines. That would help to solidify the area as a central meeting place for all Bostonians. But city planners should also be considering the role played by motorists in the creation of an all-inclusive downtown destination.

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