Christmas shopping a bit bleak downtown

Former Filene’s site is blight on district

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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As a bitter wind howled, AmyBeth Snyder huddled in the doorway of the defunct Barnes & Noble in Downtown Crossing, where a cartoon snowman hung in the window above a “No Trespassing’’ sign.

But it wasn’t the sign that squelched Snyder’s Christmas spirit yesterday afternoon. It was the crater-like void across the street, the yawning hole in the ground where a long-awaited skyscraper was meant to be.

Glaring across Washington Street, Snyder said the commercial chasm had sent a shiver through the downtown shopping district, and even left her feeling a bit empty.

“It’s horrible. Just horrible,’’ said Snyder, who lives in Nahant and has worked at Joseph Gann Jewelers on Washington Street for 15 years. “I don’t understand it, after all this time. It’s hurting everything around it.’’

Two weeks before Christmas - and just days after Mayor Thomas M. Menino returned to work, blasting the development company that left the hole in the ground and asking the business community for ideas to fix it - Downtown Crossing is decked out for the holiday season.

On the hour, tinny carols from the famed Filene’s carillon ring through the air, and preprogrammed Christmas favorites from Johnny Mathis to the Beach Boys crackle across the pedestrian mall.

Beside a garlanded information booth, boxwood trees and holly bunches are for sale, and inside a large tent on Summer Street, a holiday market displays hand-thrown ceramics and jewelry, woven baskets, and artisanal breads.

Swarms of shoppers scurry from Macy’s to Marshalls and back again, ducking into coffee shops and the Corner Mall food court to warm up and consult their shopping lists.

Yet at almost every turn looms the eyesore at the former Filene’s site, a blight on the bustling area that gives the holiday flourishes a hollow ring.

With several other properties in the area also lying vacant, some likened the decorations to tossing a few strands of tinsel on a stubby, shedding Christmas tree.

“It’s grim,’’ said Mari Fernandes, a 25-year-old from Dorchester who carried several shopping bags as she shot a sneering look at the stalled construction site. “Not festive at all. Build something already.’’

Part of the problem, many said, was that Downtown Crossing was once great, the region’s leading shopping area. At Christmastime it sparkled even brighter, kindled with the magic of the season.

“It was the place to come,’’ said Noah Lambert, who was selling trees, wreaths, and mistletoe beside the old Filene’s building. “So many stores, so many people, all right here.’’

But over time, Downtown Crossing’s charms faded. With the loss of the iconic Filene’s Basement almost three years ago, a beloved destination for countless shoppers and one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the area’s slump deepened.

“The area needs a major infusion of capital,’’ said Lambert, 64. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that losing Filene’s has had a huge impact.’’

The mayor last week was another who was clearly vexed. Meeting with business leaders, he vowed to revitalize the area and said he wants help drumming up ideas for the Filene’s site.

Lambert and other vendors praised the city for trying to pump life into the area, citing the street decorations and recently opened holiday market. Yesterday, dozens walked through the warm tent, sampling hummus and hot cocoa and browsing from booth to booth, and said the bazaar was a welcome addition.

Around the corner on Washington Street, a line of street carts featured handbags, winter caps, and silk scarves, catching many customers’ eyes. Even in the bright of day, wreathed street lamps cast a gentle glow.

On a bracingly cold day, the shops and restaurants drew a brisk business. Couples sampled the array of family-run jewelry shops, teenagers poured into hat and shoe shops, and downtown workers popped into phone stores in search of an upgrade.

Many customers said they were fond of Downtown Crossing because it had so many stores clustered together, most of them reasonably priced, and that it was easy to get to via the MBTA.

At the same time, the economic downturn was never far from view. At Champs Sports, a sign advertised the store’s free layaway program. A clothing store called Wet Seal promoted items for as little as $5, and people crowded into a convenience store to buy scratch tickets and play Keno.

Just up the street from Macy’s, a wreath hung from the front of a large vacant building, just above a “Space For Lease: Three Floors Available’’ sign. On nearby Temple Place, another storefront stood vacant, beside a new discount department store.

“Good deals in there,’’ a middle-aged man said before hurrying off to catch a Silver Line bus.