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Adrian Walker

Staring into gaping holes

By Adrian Walker
March 6, 2009
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A burrito shop just opened in the shadow of upscale new condos on Province Street, and the city believes this is a mark of success.

That is a snapshot of what is wrong with Downtown Crossing.

There are parts of this city that just never worked in practice the way they were designed to work. Government Center comes to mind. The same could be said of Downtown Crossing.

While the "pedestrian mall" has always had its critics, its problems were papered over for years by its major attractions. With Filene's, Filene's Basement, and Macy's as anchors, the idea of a downtown shopping district worked, sort of.

But Filene's is gone, the Basement is now ensconced in the Back Bay, and what is left is a hodgepodge with no identity, a weird mix of major development and pushcarts.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is sensitive about Downtown Crossing, and not just for the obvious reason that it is an eyesore in the middle of town. He has always had great personal fondness for it as well. But its situation is precarious, much like the city's.

Menino took reporters on a walking tour this week to convince them that Downtown is thriving. The tour was apparently a flop. The Globe's John C. Drake, who accompanied the mayor to the burrito shop, reported that Menino never actually walked through the traffic-free zone that has drawn so much criticism.

The big problem with Downtown Crossing is that when Filene's and Filene's Basement left, they took the area's identity with them. That problem may not be fixable in the terrible economy. The stalled high-rise on the Filene's site is a testament to the toll the economy is taking. The project is being downsized, but at this point remains impossible to finance. Instead of an office tower, it's a monument to urban blight.

Blight isn't the only problem the recession is causing Menino. Most of the city's unions have reacted coolly to his proposal for a one-year wage freeze, despite the threat that refusing it will surely lead to deep layoffs in major city departments.

The Boston Teachers Union has been one of the most vocal in opposing a freeze. Its president, Richard Stutman, argues that the city does not yet know how dire its financial picture is or what concessions will ultimately prove necessary.

"There are so many unanswered questions about all this," Stutman said yesterday. He ticked off a few: how much federal stimulus money can go to schools, how much local aid the city will receive from the state, and how deeply the city will tap its reserves. In a scenario that I suspect will prove rosy, he believes some combination of funding sources might tide the city over for the next year or two.

So far, five unions out of 44 have agreed to the freeze, all of them among the city's smallest. The major ones are all waiting to see how bad things get. The firefighters, embroiled in a long and bitter contract negotiation, say that without a contract they don't have any raises to freeze.

The city does have a cash reserve of approximately $100 million that will certainly be tapped to avert some budget cuts. City officials said yesterday that it is too early to say how much of it will get spent, or for what.

The teachers have hired a consultant to help them untangle the city's finances. That analyst will probably report to them that the city is, like the rest of us, poorer than it used to be.

Menino is still in the process of promoting his wage freeze, which is nearly as tough a sell as the splendor of Downtown Crossing.

The coming layoffs - and they are coming - will be a blow to city services. But they will be a blow to the city's psyche, as well. A city is not supposed to be a stalled work in progress, hobbled by too few solutions and too little capital.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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