Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Next Round of Suburban Thought versus Boston

Downtown Crossing, Boston's once-vibrant central shopping district, is a resounding failure. Long-vacant storefronts line the sidewalks, and new stores seem to fail regularly. Lonely pushcart vendors never appear to sell anything. There is always a disturbingly high police presence. And by seven p.m., seven nights a week, twelve months a year, the heart of Downtown Boston is totally abandoned, a lonely and uninviting concrete tomb.

But the Globe has a solution: in the words of Universal Hub's Adam Gaffin, "turn Downtown Crossing into a parking lot."

That's right. Who needs a pedestrian mall to serve the shopping needs of city residents, when we can create a vehicular pipeline for suburbanites? We can safely assume that many city residents don't have cars--and the ones who do own cars are already using them to shop in the suburbs. The people who visit Downtown Crossing today are that strange breed of transit-using citizen, the uncanny mix of the working poor and the car-free by choice (the latter group includes me). The Globe seems to suggest that replacing these people with, yes, suburbanites, would make it all better. Never mind the tens of thousands of suburbanites who work blocks away but avoid the shops of Downtown Crossing at all costs, lured away by the malls of home.

Let's go ahead and reopen Downtown Crossing to vehicular traffic. We can then judge Downtown Crossing's success not by the tax revenue it generates or the quality of life offered there but by the number of suburbanites parking on the streets, dooring bikers, and standing in the middle of the sidewalks in large numbers. Or, once it's reopened to auto traffic, we can pretend that Washington Street is just another silent downtown street and put the failure of Downtown Crossing behind us.

I think the blight of Downtown Crossing is a real problem. After staying in the neighborhood during a conference, several of my colleagues vowed never to return to Boston again. Downtown Crossing has to do better, but the bottom line is that trying to compete with or emulate the suburbs is not going to make the city center work better. We need less suburban thought, and fewer bad ideas, from our elected officials and our newspapers.
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Now, here's a good idea. Back in 2005, I wrote about a Globe article comparing the number of Business Improvement Districts in Boston (zero) to the number in New York (over 50). In New York, these ideas really work, by helping local businesses invest in everything from neighborhood beautification to hiring the employees who beautify, maintain, and provide security on the streets. BIDs turn neighborhoods like Downtown Flushing in Queens and Fordham Road in the Bronx into tremendously successful shopping districts. Amazingly, Boston can't pull this off in the middle of downtown. But it's not like anyone's trying. It's all talk and millions of dollars spent on consultants.

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