What's Next for Booming Downtown
The 575 guests at Bisnow’s Future of Downtown event yesterday heard about the transcendent changes underway in the heart of the city. But for all the improvements, much remains to be done and the speakers weren’t shy about enumerating the tasks at hand. (Don't ask these panelists how your outfit looks, because they are very honest.)
In introductory remarks, Nixon Peabody partner Larry DiCara hit on big issues that arose during the event: improving zoning and transportation. The panel moderated by Nixon Peabody partner Allen Lynch, highlighted the city’s great promise but warned that its arduous permitting, restrictive zoning, and impediments to developing affordable housing could hold back progress.
Back in the day, Larry’s parents emigrated from Italy to first settle downtown and then moved to the “promised land”—Dorchester. After decades of out migration, there’s now a new wave of downtown residents breathing life back into the center city. This rising tide presents the Walsh Administration with a chance to “undo the mistakes of the past,” Larry says. Zoning should allow more as-of-right development. Boston needs more taxis and fewer buses clogging narrow streets. It’s a time for bold action: relocate City Hall and reposition the “brutalist dinosaur” that is the current seat of municipal government, he says.
So many property owners were in the audience because downtown is Boston’s vital core. As everyone knows, three things are important to real estate: "transportation, transportation, and transportation", says Ron whose portfolio is packed with downtown commercial property. Companies on Rt 128 and from other states will move here to be where the action and the transit is plentiful, he adds. Landlords launched the Downtown BID to promote, maintain and secure the area. But it doesn't have the capital-raising authority needed to upgrade streets and other infrastructure. The BID has to seek assistance from the public sector to do the improvements.
Millennium Partners has developed $1.7B in three projects downtown—the Ritz-Carlton Towers, Millennium Place, and and the Burnham Building /Millennium Tower—because downtown is the the top-dead-center sparkplug that energizes the entire city. These projects are game changers and they’re successful because they're in Boston's most urbane location. Downtown has diversity—in its buildings, work force, and businesses (from traditional to cutting edge creative). It has new housing and a well integrated transportation system. To maintain the resurgence, our high-capacity mass transit infrastructure is crucial, Tony says. The MBTA needs new trapid transit cars. At South Station, the MBTA should roll back the loss of its real estate (the station is half the size it was) and quickly install more tracks and passenger platforms to expand service. The problem: public agencies don’t have enough money or Federal support, he says.
Emerson College took an enormous risk in the ‘90s when it moved its campus from Back Bay to the Midtown Cultural District bordering the Combat Zone, a place many feared to even walk, says Peggy (above with Jacobs' Michael Giardina). The college has invested in academic, performance, and dorm space and most important, introduced youthful exuberance to tired city streets. It’s now developing a new residence hall and preparing to renovate the façade of the Little Building where 750 students live. But arcane Boston permitting is a "long process that halts progress," she says. More people will come downtown, if the T makes its extended hours permanent; landlords open more outdoor cafés, and hosting the 2024 Olympics would be “terrific,” she says.
A bright future for downtown depends on seizing moments like the current boom to tackle tough tasks, says Kirk whose fund is developing One Greenway where 15 stories of steel are up. Unusual for this wave of multifamily development, 40% of the project’s 363 residences will be affordable. Building housing downtown that working and lower-income people can afford is among the toughest challenges. Also on the list:celebrate the city's streamlining of the BRA process; keep the Greenway lit and active during the cold months, and support TOD at North and South Stations with more retail. If Boston can seize this moment it'll position itself for competition with other hot coastal urban markets like New York and DC.
Property owners created the BID to protect $10B invested in downtown and do jobs the City cannot: marketing, cleaning, security, and better signage for the nearly 100-acre neighborhood, says Rosemarie. The pioneers in turning around the CBD were Millennium Partners, Emerson College, and Suffolk University, she says. The Walsh Administration is open to working on downtown zoning and infrastructure issues. With 160,000 people a day coming to work in the neighborhood and 4.2 million visitors a year, the Downtown Crossing T station and sidewalks need an overhaul and the city needs to be alive 24/7.
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