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Downtown Boston's Vibrant Again, But Its Future Can't Be Taken For Granted

A generation ago, Downtown Boston was down and out. Now that the area's seen a transformation for the better unlike any since the early 20th century how do we keep that vibrancy alive? The speakers at Bisnow's Future of Downtown Boston event highlighted one strategy: making Downtown more hospitable to residents with small children.


Nixon Peabody partner Lawrence DiCara, who gave the opening remarks, pointed out that Downtown Boston has a long history of changing demographics and land use, with periods of people living Downtown, then later generations fleeing to suburbs — that even happened in the 19th century, as people wanted to escape unhealthy conditions — then returning to the city.

Now the cycle has turned and thousands of new residents have come Downtown since the turn of the 21st century, DiCara said. The area's population is larger than it has been in more than 50 years, and companies are coming back Downtown. Retailers and entertainment, which used to be here, went away — and are coming back in different forms: smaller, focused and just as successful. 

Downtown office users also don't take as much space as they used to. Smaller and entrepreneurial users are filling the submarket, driving Boston's well-deserved reputation for innovation. Students are Downtown now as well, changing the dynamic of the area. There's also a new food scene Downtown, including menus not heard of a generation ago. 


Babson College Chief Administrative Officer Katherine Craven said Babson College's expansion to Downtown, moving to a more modern and accessible location, is helping the school attract graduate students where they work, which is increasingly Downtown. The new location also offers alumni a convenient and innovative space for networking, co-working and more. Nearly half of all Babson alumni – about 16,000 graduates – live or work in greater Boston, and the eight largest employers of Babson graduates are Boston-based companies. A Downtown location is essential to Babson being part of the fabric of the city, she said.

Downtown Boston Business Improvement District president Rosemarie Sansone, whose organization represents Downtown commercial property owners in 34 blocks, said the Downtown Boston BID just completed strategic planning exercises, partly involving how to work with the City of Boston to make improvements to Downtown. 

Boston is a strong brand now, she said, but nothing should be taken for granted. For instance, Boston is one of the safest cities in the country, as the mayor said in his State of the City speech recently. That's a strong point for the metro. But it takes collaboration and a lot of effort to keep the city safe, both on the part of public officials and private organizations such as hers.

Pictured: our moderator, PACE Communications Group principal David Fleming, Babson College CAO Katherine Craven, Downtown Boston Business Improvement District president Rosemarie Sansone, The HYM Investment Group director of development Doug Manz, HCNE principal Tim Kirwan and CBT Architects director of urban design Kishore Varanasi.


The HYM Investment Group director of development Doug Manz, whose company is developing the mixed-use Bulfinch Crossing, said the former Government Center garage was a physical and visual barrier since the day it was finished in 1969. The redevelopment will be a six-building complex, 2.9M SF on five acres, and very dense.

Other parts of the city, even growing places such as Seaport and Kendall Square, will never come close to the density of Downtown, Manz said. Bulfinch Crossing is trying to target all demographics by including such features as children's playrooms next to gyms. A mix of ages is an important consideration if Downtown is to remain vibrant, he said.

CBT Architects director of urban design Kishore Varanasi, whose firm has done design work at Bulfinch Crossing, among many other Downtown projects, agreed it's a challenge to keep people in the area, especially after they've had children. A more sustainable Downtown needs a diversity of demographics. Millennials are likely to move to the suburbs, because it's still difficult to live in the city. Only 6% of the Downtown population are households.

HCNE principal Tim Kirwan said the demand is there for more hotels Downtown — he characterized hotels as mini-cities that support their community, as a direct part of the fabric of an area as it evolves. For example, the mix at the InterContinental of condo units on top of the hotel space brings clients in from all over the world, and they experience Downtown Boston and take those impressions back out into the world.