The mayor's office released a report today on revitalizing downtown after Covid to make it more of a walking neighborhood with lots more residents, tourists and, yes, office workers, and with more things for them to do, even 24/7, like in other world-class cities, instead of a place where residents fight late-night tacos.
With a daytime population and physical space heavily biased toward offices, downtown has felt the reverberations of changing working norms acutely. Foot traffic downtown remains on average 55% below 2019 levels, driven by a loss in office workers who may not return in full force. These impacts resonate far beyond office towers - impacting downtown's retail, culture, and hospitality ecosystems, shifting transit patterns, and highlighting disparities that have been systemically present in the area.
Among the possible steps for improving downtown: Supplementing Washington Street with new "pedestrianized" roads open only to pedestrians and bicyclists, some permanently, some on special occasions such as the Open Newbury street closings in the summer.
The City, as part of the PLAN Downtown effort, has already identified potential candidates for pedestrianization in this area (including Canal Street, Tontine Crescent, and expanded areas in Downtown Crossing), but selection will require additional study from safety and enforcement teams, including fire, police, traffic engineers, and public works, among others.
The proposal calls for encouraging new residential development downtown and making it easier to convert downtown office space in older, less prestigious Class B and C buildings into residential units - especially if the projects include a hefty amount of affordable apartments and condos; those projects would get a fast-track approval process. Conversion to college dorms would also be encouraged.
The report says that Boston's "peer cities," including London, Paris and Washington, DC, already have programs for this.
Currently, only ~28% of downtown's development pipeline is residential. Notably, however, many existing commercial buildings could be well suited for residential conversion, avoiding vacancies while preserving downtown's historic charm for future generations. The City plans to work with developers and institutions to better understand roadblocks to residential development and to support residential projects.
The plan does not address where children who might live in these new spaces would go to school.
The proposal also looks at how to bolster both retail and nightlife downtown.
The City can help existing businesses and industries downtown expand their operations through programming, investment, and regulatory facilitation. Industry-specific promotional weeks, such as Dine Out Boston, have been historically successful in boosting spend and engagement at Boston restaurants during slow periods; expanded promotional efforts - for hotels, cultural centers, retailers, or more - could provide similar activation for other industries downtown. The City can also invest in placemaking activities that make the downtown space a more inviting place to spend time; by improving infrastructure and putting on programming, the City can entice broader audiences to this space, bringing increased traffic to the businesses operating downtown, especially at night and other low-traffic periods. By easing unnecessarily complex policies and re-thinking zoning laws, the City will also greatly facilitate the ability for businesses downtown to continue and expand operations and lower barriers for new entrants looking to serve this neighborhood.
The city would look at changing downtown zoning to let first-floor retail space be more easily converted into such uses as co-working spaces and daycare as well as for pop-up temporary stores and even maker spaces. Owners of empty office space would be encouraged to offer free or subsidized space to cultural and entertainment groups.
The proposal also calls for beefing up retail downtown, including "a multi-million dollar commercial subsidy program targeted to support underserved businesses and fill vacant space," with a focus on minority-owned businesses.
Entertainment needs to be upped to help "make Boston a 24-hour city, on par with other global cities, with nightlife that is inviting and welcoming to everyone," the report states. Mayor Wu is looking to hire a director of strategic initiatives to help make this a reality. The two previous mayors also talked about 24/7 areas in the city but then retreated.
Part of that would include figuring out how to "create spaces, events, and programs to expand nightlife downtown, ideally to attract new populations and demographic/socioeconomic groups."
There are currently only 89 nightlife establishments open in downtown Boston.
Boston's "sleepy" reputation impacts the City's ability to attract and retain younger talent.
Nightlife establishments in peer cities contribute roughly $1.5M per establishment to a city's economy annually, representing significant economic opportunity for Boston.
Key to helping local retail would be boosting the number of tourists who come to downtown. And you can't talk about that without talking about Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which the city says should return to its roots as a place focused on "inclusive and diverse" locally owned shops instead of becoming just another series of chain outlets with brick sidewalks. Part of the discussions with the New York firm that now holds the lease on the city-owned marketplace will have to focus on the "significant deferred investment" in the physical marketplace buildings to help build a better marketplace, one that brings in not just tourists, but locals.
Ironically, given Faneuil Hall Marketplace's history as one of the nation's first "festival marketplaces" when it was redesigned in the 1970s, the city says it could take inspiration from places in other cities, including Chicago's Navy Pier, San Francisco's Ferry Building and London's Covent Garden. The city notes that New York's Chelsea Market is limited to retailers actually based in New York.
With all those new people coming downtown, Boston would need to make its dense streets work better for pedestrians and bicyclists. In addition to looking at possibly eliminating cars from some streets, the city plans to look at ways to reduce the number and size of delivery vehicles downtown - and to increase the number of bike lanes and make sidewalks easier to navigate:
Last-mile delivery logistics can create congestion, noise, and safety concerns in a busy City center; to ensure Boston is able to properly regulate, incentivize and support an efficient system of delivery logistics, and to inform decisions surrounding pedestrianization and other streetscape changes, the City needs to study delivery-related logistics movements. ...
City action to improve streetscapes should follow the pattern of the current State Street and Blossom Street reconstruction projects, introducing dedicated bike lanes, widening the sidewalk and making it fully accessible, improving roadway conditions, and analyzing and optimizing use of curb space to maximize efficiency
This would include figuring out how to work with downtown landlords on maintenance of all those privately owned "areaways," also known as "hollow sidewalks," which fortunately only rarely catch on fire.