Borders Books is closing its downtown Boston branch (where I've done almost all my Christmas shopping over the past decade), which means more debate over why a growing, prosperous city has such a crummy central shopping district. The Filene's Pit debacle is one reason, of course, but there must be ways to improve the neighborhood around that giant hole on Washington Street, just as Boston should be able to fix up the Government Center area instead of being distracted by the unlikely prospect of tearing down City Hall. (Both places were in my "10 Worst Things About Boston" post.)
Tuesday's Boston Herald has some suggestions from its business writers for turning things around. But I can't imagine a casino being a good thng, despite Frank Quaratiello's argument that it would bring "foot traffic" and fill in storefronts. Don't gambling establishments offer cheap food and drink and do all they can to stop people from leaving? Are people really going to play the slots and then drop $80 for a meal at BIna Osteria or Petit Robert?
Besides, a lack of foot traffic isn't really the problem. There are plenty of pedestrians at all hours of the day, thanks in part to all the workers in the area. Nighttime is a different story, and other Herald writers are correct to urge more housing and round-the-clock activities, though I think the city has already been aiming for that.
My suggestion is cut back on the glitz (which is proliferating nicely in other parts of the city) and turn Downtown Crossing into an historic district.
But there's plenty of history in Downtown Crossing, including the preserved facade of Filene's department store and the Jane Jacobs-ideal shops and restaurants along Bromfield Street (including Marliave's, pictured above, and the Watch Hospital. I honestly don't know why there aren't architectural (and urban studies) walking tours going down Bromfield Street every day.
I don't mean that Downtown Crossing should be frozen in time. Making it a historic district shouldn't mean a stop to new construction or additional regulations on signage, windows, etc. But the city (or a strengthened Downtown Crossing business improvement district) could add informational kiosks, public art, and the like to give a feel of the area's glory days. I'm guessing that would be around the '50s, when the big department stores (not just Filene's and Jordan Marsh but Raymond's, Gilchrist's, etc.) packed them in. But some reminders of the notorious, '70s-era Combat Zone would also interest tourists on their way to the new nightspots in the Ladder District.
There could be a counterpart to the Freedom Trail (the Fedora Trail?) that connects the 18th-century sites north of Downtown Crossing to the theaters and modern hotels at its southern end. Get Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Christina Fredericks to dedicate it.
An historic district could attract more small businesses (souvenirs, eateries, etc.), and the city could do what it can to encourage independent, local entrepreneurs instead of chain stores.
The biggest impediment I can see to this scheme is that, despite the indisputable ickiness of Downtown Crossing, rents are probably still too high for retailers, especially local merchants. It's still a valuable area for office space, residences, and bars and restaurants, and I suspect property owners are holding out hope that retail will return to being just as lucrative.
I doubt that will happen. City leaders dream about Trader Joe's, Target, and other chains taking over the biggest storefronts on Washington Street, but they've had plenty of time to do so without acting. Big Retail isn't going to save Downtown Crossing.