July 11, 2005

How Much Revamping Does Downtown Crossing Need?

Boston city government and retailers will be spending a combined $1 million over the next year to spiff up Downtown Crossing, the Boston Globe reports, describing the existing retail district as "a craggy mix of discount chains, fast-food spots, and vacant storefronts [that] line Washington Street and surrounding blocks in Downtown Crossing."

''It's tired, it's dirty, and it can be a real downer," David Levin, chief executive of Casual Male Retail Group Inc., told the Globe.

But Bostonist wonders how much of an overhaul is needed. Better sidewalks, free wi-fi and attracting a new supermarket or Target? Yes. But yuppification/gentrification/mallifcation? They're not so sure. "Boston already has the Copley mall and the innumerable fancy malls that dot the western suburbs, but we don't have so many unique urban spaces where the diversity of our city is actually visible without the aid of demographics charts," they note.

Good point. However, there should be plenty of room on the spectrum between leaving someplace dirty and tired but just fixing up the sidewalks, and trying to turn it into another Newbury Street.

I'd favor trying to turn it into a place that's not a ghost town after 7 pm, and that means creating a streetscape where people feel comfortable after dark - enough businesses and residences to achieve critical mass for urban nightlife. Upscale stores aren't the only reason Newbury Street is alive after dark - along with an outstanding urban pedestrian streetscape, there are enough restaurants and cafes to attract people after the shops close, and enough residents nearby to populate them.

It's a circle - retailers don't want to pour money into upgrading their stores if the district doesn't seem like it's moving somewhat forward with the times. That doesn't have to mean high-end yuppification, but it does mean understanding that the streetscape of the '80s may be a bit outdated a quarter-century later. I used to enjoy shopping at Filene's and Macy's in Downtown Crossing, but the last couple of times I visited, the stores just seemed depressing - the only women's clothing store worth the trip was H&M. Some modernizing isn't a bad idea - if it's done with improving the pedestrian ambiance.

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