Downtown Crossing: An Old District Tries to Becomes a New Neighborhood

By Bruce Gellerman, 90.9 WBUR | October 16, 2013

BOSTON — Downtown Crossing is the epicenter of Boston’s social, cultural and commercial history. East of Boston Common and west of the Financial District, it is where Winter Street crosses Washington Street and turns into Summer.

“John Phillips, Boston’s first mayor, was born right at this corner here. And John Josiah Quincy, Boston’s great mayor, who was the second mayor, lived across the street,” said Jim Vrabel, author of “When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac.” Vrabel’s book chronicles day-by-day the city’s history, much of which happened right on the streets in and around Downtown Crossing.

“Benjamin Franklin’s house was on the corner of Milk Street,” Vrabel said. “The Old South Meeting House was where they gathered prior to the Boston Tea Party. Further down the street you have the Theater District where Keith and Albee started vaudeville.”

School Street is where Charles Ponzi hatched his get-rich-quick scheme. Nearby, at the Omni Parker House Hotel, Ho Chi Minh worked as a baker, Malcolm X was a busboy and John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie.

The nation’s first subway is just a block away, at Park Street. The MBTA station at Downtown Crossing is the busiest in the system. And near the entrance, on the corner of Summer and Washington, embedded in the concrete, is a circular bronze medallion staking the city’s bold-as-brass claim to greatness.

It reads: “Hub of the Universe.”

“And in fact [this area] was the hub of the old Boston,” Vrabel said. “This was Boston’s 5th Avenue, where all the department stores were — Filene’s, Jordan’s, Kresge’s, R.H. White’s. People from all over Boston, all over eastern Massachusetts, would come here to shop. They would dress up when they came in to this area to shop, to go to Bailey’s for sundaes. This was the place.”

But after World War II, a quarter of the city’s population moved to the suburbs and started shopping at malls. Downtown Crossing lost its customers and its luster.

“It reflected the downturn in the old Boston in the 1940s and ’50s, and it kind of hit bottom and it has struggled ever since as the new Boston has been built up all around it,” Vrabel said. “It has struggled to maintain its place as the center of Boston.”

A Crossroads

Over the decades, the district steadily declined. Stores closed, and theaters that once housed vaudeville shows and stage plays were turned into X-rated movie houses. The area became known as the Combat Zone.

Downtown Crossing was at a crossroads when about 20 years ago Emerson College and Suffolk University moved their campuses to either end of the district.

“Indeed it was a combat zone. It was not a place that one wanted to be seen in,” said Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College. ”It was a very bold move and it really led the way in the revitalization of the downtown. Now it’s a bustling, vital, wonderful place, full of life.”

Emerson invested half a billion dollars in the district, doubled its space to 1 million square feet, built dorms, and restored theaters. Today, the school owns more performance space than any institution in the city, turning Downtown Crossing back into the cultural mecca it once was.

Restaurants followed, and today there are 100 in the district — helping turn what had been a 9-to-5, work-a-day world into an evening destination.

“We have it all, that’s what makes us unique,” said Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Boston Business Improvement District, or Boston BID. It’s the only organization of its kind in the city. The self-taxing group of 500 commercial property owners and retailers in the area started in 2010 and is spending $20 million to spruce up and secure the district.

“We call our services ‘clean and safe services,’ but we don’t have police authority,” Sansone explained. “But we work extremely closely with the police department. We have 30 ambassadors that are on the street every day almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The ambassadors — dressed in bright orange shirts and green jackets — provide directions for tourists, remove graffiti and water the plants. They even help the homeless find social services. The goal is to turn the old district into a new neighborhood.

“The big story here is that this is becoming a residential area,” Pelton said. “No one in their wildest imagination, 30 years ago, could have thought that it would in fact become what it is today.”

Affordability Concerns

For the past seven years, the site of the Filene’s Basement flagship store on Washington Street was just a big hole in the ground and the once-glorious Beaux-Arts Burnham building stood hollow and empty. Just last month the city agreed to give Millennium Partners $7.8 million in tax breaks to build a 55-story apartment building on the site.

But the big news had to do with the ground floor. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced at the site’s groundbreaking that an upscale Roche Bros. supermarket would be moving in. It will be the district’s first large grocery store — what could finally turn Downtown Crossing into a 24/7 neighborhood.

The project, dubbed Millennium Towers, will cost more than $600 million to build and will feature 450 luxury units — a skyscraper with sky-high prices.

“When you build a building this tall, there will be certain apartments at the base of the building that have limited views and those will be much more affordable,” said Chris Jeffries, Millennium Partners’ founding partner. ”Affordable is a subjective word here, of course. And then as you go to the top of the building, it will be extraordinary and probably as expensive as any apartment is in the city of Boston.”

A few days after the project was announced, housing activists gathered on City Hall Plaza to protest the millions in tax breaks for the project. Most of the demonstrators were from Chinatown, which borders Downtown Crossing, and were asking for more affordable housing in the neighborhood.

Millennium Partners — like all developers doing construction in Boston — has to build 15 percent of its units as affordable housing. But the average income for a family of four in Chinatown is less than $14,000 a year. Most residents there can’t afford affordable housing.

“We’re afraid there won’t be any Chinese left in Chinatown because it’s becoming so unaffordable,” said Karen Chen, operations director of the Chinese Progressive Association, which is based in Chinatown — the most densely populated part of Boston.

Over the past decade Chinatown has been gaining residents, but the Asian population has declined from about 90 percent to 78 percent, while the white population has doubled. This once-undesirable part of the city, built on landfill, is feeling the crunch as new luxury apartments in Downtown Crossing put pressure on rents there.

Planning For The Future

What’s the price for progress and development? And who pays? After so many decades of decline, Downtown Crossing is finally back on track. But Vrabel says planning for the future in a place with so much history is hard.

“This is really probably one of the greatest urban design challenges you might have in an American city,” he said.

Vrabel once served as a senior research analyst at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the agency that oversees all construction projects in the city. Vrabel cautions that transforming Downtown Crossing into a residential neighborhood isn’t just about buildings, it’s about different people sharing a special place.

“It’s a transportation hub underneath, where the Red Line and the Orange Line meet, and people from all over Boston and all over Greater Boston come in to go to work every day,” he said. “There are people that are moving into high rises. … There are soup kitchens and shelters who serve a very poor population, that’s another kind of people. Then you have tourists and you have the college students from Suffolk and Emerson. All together in one place.

“It’s a good thing, but it’s a complicated thing. It’s hard to figure out how one place can service, welcome, handle and mix all those people in one place. That’s the challenge.”

And that’s what Boston’s new mayor will be facing when he takes office just up the street.

This story was co-produced by Samara Breger.