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Stuck in the shadows

Sports fans, residents still await vibrant neighborhood promised when the old El came down

The view down Causeway Street in 1990. The view down Causeway Street in 1990. (Peter Vanderwarker for The Boston Globe)
By David Filipov
Globe Staff / June 12, 2010

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Tomorrow night, raucous crowds of fans whooping in anticipation of another epic Celtics-Lakers clash will throng to the TD Garden. Projection lights will beam the shamrock-and-leprechaun logo and the “Beat LA’’ battle cry onto the building’s massive façade, as green spotlights rove around the exterior.

But in front of the arena, a nondescript stretch of Causeway Street will confront fans with an imposing fence surrounding a large parking lot. They will bustle along narrow sidewalks into a tiny plaza at the entrance and funnel quickly into a narrow walkway that leads to the entrance to a train station.

Causeway Street has come a long way from the underworld of dank passages and rusted steel that it was before the Central Artery and the elevated Green Line came down.

But the harsh glare of the national sporting limelight has revealed a place that is still a far cry from the thriving thoroughfare of tree-lined walkways, diverse entertainment, and bustling commerce that business owners were hoping would make the street a prime destination when it emerged from the shadows back in 2004 or when the new Garden opened in 1995.

“They’ve made some face lifts, but I think a lot is behind schedule,’’ said Peter Colton, owner of The Four’s Boston Restaurant and Sports Bar on adjacent Canal Street.

Have no fear, say city planners. Big improvements are on the way.

“It’s still a place that is emerging from the shadow of the Central Artery,’’ said Kairos Shen, Boston’s director of planning. “But there is a lot of work that has been done that you can’t yet see.’’

On a scale model of the city stretched across a large table on the ninth floor of City Hall, Shen indicated wooden blocks that symbolize the projects already approved for construction on and around Causeway Street: a commercial and hotel development on Beverly Street, a residence and retail complex on Haverhill Street; a commercial building near the top of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway; a tower rising from the site of the former Boston Garden.

“We would like to think that as soon as the current economic troubles are over, we will see these properties,’’ he said. “They are basically waiting for money.’’

The revitalization is part of a citywide effort to modernize major thoroughfares to help them connect neighborhoods to one another, and to improve access for walkers and bikers to the Greenway.

Ideally, the new Causeway Street would have pedestrian ramps, bike lanes, flower planters, street lamps, and outdoor cafes.

The centerpiece of this future Causeway Street is a plan to revamp the entrance to the TD Garden and North Station.

John Wentzell, president of TD Garden and Delaware North Companies-Boston, which owns the Boston Bruins and the arena, described plans for a space that includes entertainment facilities, retail shops, and eateries.

“That’s part of the ultimate master plan,’’ Wentzell said. He would not give a date when this vision might become reality, but said, “It is active, and it is something we are focused on.’’

Wentzell acknowledged that the game-time atmosphere around TD Garden pales in comparison to that of the arena of the Celtics’ finals foe. Outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, sports television and radio stations broadcast from the street. Giant high-definition screens gleam from the facades of buildings around the arena.

By comparison, fans approaching the Garden stop and take pictures at the new statue of Bruins icon Bobby Orr, but no one stays for long. Forming a crowd is discouraged, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker, who had planned to meet and greet voters in Orr’s shadow Tuesday night, found out. Security officers told his retinue that they had to move. Baker ended up shaking hands on the island in the middle of Causeway Street.

Across Causeway, on the corner of Canal Street, Andrea Ortiz was one of only a few vendors who had temporarily set up shop selling Celtics souvenirs and trinkets. Ortiz, who does much of her business near Fenway Park, normally eschews Celtics and Bruins games.

“People don’t stop usually,’’ she said, as she sold a pack of Celtics pens.

Planners and business owners agree that the transformation of the space around parks and arenas from perfunctory cityscapes to popular hangouts does not happen overnight. Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street are now destinations even when the Red Sox are out of town, but that took years to pull off.

The gradual transformation of Causeway Street parallels the odyssey of The Four’s. Gino MacGregor, who has tended bar there for 30 years, recalls the days when the place was small and dark, like its setting under the shadow on the Green Line. “More of a bar bar,’’ is how he put it.

The arrival of sunlight on Causeway Street has accompanied the growth of The Four’s into a modern sports bar and restaurant with flat screens and outdoor seating. Studded with autographed memorabilia and imbued with local sports history, the venue was named the top sports bar in the country by Sports Illustrated in 2005.

On Tuesday, a pregame crowd spilled into the street and NBA Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Bill Walton stopped by.

But the place is quiet when the TD Garden is empty, Colton said, a concern echoed by others awaiting the development of the area.

“We had hoped it would be sooner rather than later,’’ said Bob O’Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Association. “The timeline is slower than our expectation, but it is still moving forward.’’

O’Brien pointed out a ray of hope across Canal Street from The Four’s, the Archstone Avenir Apartments, erected on a spot where Green Line trains once rumbled. The brick and glass contemporary structure is designed to be evocative of the history of the area.

Most of the units in the apartment building have been sold, O’Brien said, and the retail space spoken for.

Chris Mitzlaff, wearing a Blackhawks jersey during his first visit to Causeway Street this week, recalled seeing the old Garden on television and thinking it reminded him of the way the elevated line snakes around buildings in his native Chicago.

“Now it looks like it’s becoming a neighborhood,’’ he said.

Greg Lee and Scott Thurston of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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