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Northeastern students open dialogue about Filene's site

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 28, 2011 11:52 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for

The empty hole in the Filene’s lot provided inspiration for a group of Northeastern University design students.

Many Bostonians bemoan the downtown pit where Filene’s department store used to stand, but one local educator and his students decided to do something about it.

Northeastern University instructor Lee Moreau has worked all semester with his environmental design class to devise projects that would draw attention to the blighted site in Downtown Crossing. Through posters, signs, and interactive displays, the students recently set out to reignite public dialogue on the history of site and its future prospects.

The longtime location of the flagship Filene’s store and its original bargain basement was partially razed four years ago so a team of developers led by New York-based Vornado Realty Trust could build a 39-story tower of residences, offices, and retail space at the site.

But work on the project ceased in summer 2008, and Vornado has subsequently been unwilling to move forward or to sell the property at a loss, frustrating Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other city officials.

Moreau said he had to start the class at square one, with an explanation of the blight, because some of the juniors and seniors in the elective course didn’t know the hole was there. Once they learned more about the site, he said, they became engaged by the problem of what to do there.

“When probed, they come alive and they can really sort of process and think about and debate the issue, and that’s what we want to teach our students to do,” he said.

The result was an eclectic set of projects that aims to solicit public feedback on the site as much as to express any one perspective about it.

Senior Michelle Gayowski actively sought public comment, creating a giant frame in the style of an old Polaroid photo and asking people to be photographed at the site with their desired outcome written at the bottom of the frame.

Gayowski said she’d encountered some strong opinions.

“Some people are adamant pretty much one way or another right away,” said Gayowski, 22. She and classmate Francisco Dias, 23, said many people wanted to see a park in the area, and others had suggested attractions such as a circus, a bar, or art studios.

Gayowski said it was a little difficult at first to approach strangers on the street, but she got used to it after a while.

“Once you get a couple of people who are enthusiastic, it kind of boosts your morale,” she said.

David Restrepo, a senior from Colombia, said many passerby were confused by his project — a sign reading “Hole Sale” and a tray full of pamphlets and miniature replicas of the pit containing broken bits of concrete.

“I’ve been getting some positive people, and other people just don’t get it and walk away,” said Restrepo, 22, who was inspired by the souvenirs tourists can buy in any large city but also by the sale of pieces of the Berlin Wall after the fall of communism.

“What I wanted to do with this … is reflect the history of this [site] in one artifact,” Restrepo said. When asked for a price on the souvenir, he would reply $100 million, the amount Vornado paid for the block.

Annalise Ogle charmed most of the pedestrians who stopped at her table to look through stereoscopic viewers using archival photos of the site in Filene’s heyday. The project embraced the nostalgia many feel for the old Filene’s store but also a nostalgia for the viewer, which many played with as children in its bright-red-plastic incarnation, wherein such figures as the Muppets and Winnie the Pooh once cavorted.

Ogle, a senior from Littleton, Mass., said the response to the viewer was overwhelmingly positive.

“Everyone wants to see this problem solved,” said Ogle, 22. “It’s not so much, ‘Oh, I miss Filene’s.’ It’s more like, ‘I miss what Boston used to be.’ It’s a symptom of a larger problem.”

Nader Boraie, a senior from New Jersey, took a darker tone with his project. Boraie, 22, handed out postcards to passerby that depicted a dystopian view of Boston and had space on the back for a message to Vornado.

“Basically, they’re to try to urge the developer Vornado to get their act together and do what they promised to do,” he said. “Everybody that’s taken one has been pretty interested in expressing how they feel. A lot of people are pretty passionate about cleaning the area up.”

Though the students had many positive responses, there were a couple of complications — some signs and posters that were put up without permits had to be removed almost as soon as they were posted. But Moreau said he was surprised overall at how accommodating city officials, business owners, and the public had been.

“In general, I think the event was a great learning experience ... learning how to deal with the police respectfully, learning how hard it is to leaflet on the street, learning that planning and logistics matter, and learning that no one really cares what you think until you show them some passion and excitement,” he wrote in an email. “I learned a great deal too.”

For more information about the projects, visit and For a gallery of photos from Saturday, click here.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @DowntownUpdate.

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At, Northeastern student Francisco Dias shares some of the public response to the student projects.

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