March 23, 2009

Downtown retail districts need residences

The Boston Globe had a piece this weekend about the Downtown Crossing shopping district, with the online title: "Without car traffic, Downtown Crossing loses its charm at night." As if autos driving through a neighborhood with shuttered stores and zero pedestrian traffic is going to bring the area back to life.

I saw the same thing last weekend when I was in Indianapolis on business, in the city center, and there were wide streets with ample parking everywhere. But without a critical mass of residences in an area along with an appealing pedestrian environment to draw them from home to destinations on foot, the neighborhood street got awfully lonely at night.

And if there's too much emphasis on broad streets with quickly moving traffic, there's a major risk of killing off after-dark foot traffic altogether.

If you want to argue that vehicular access is necessary to attract more residential development along the block, fine. But just letting cars drive through won't bring vibrant nightlife back to Washington Street. Newbury Street "works" not because there are cars, but because there's the proper mix of businesses that appeal to people on foot, pedestrian-friendly streetscape including architecture that makes people want to stroll and window-shop, and a relatively narrow conduit for vehicles that usually must move slowly through the area.